Oregon rethinks approach to drivers

PERSPECTIVES • Older drivers don't always realize their skills have diminished; this spring, Oregon begins taking action to keep them and others on the road safer

The issue of aging and traffic safety rapidly is becoming a significant public health concern.

The population of Americans over age 65 will grow by 60 percent in the next 20 years. The number of older Oregonians is expected to double within the next two decades.

With the advent of medical technology, more people will be outliving their ability to drive safely. In addition, the aging baby-boom generation will be more mobile than previous generations.

Many states are looking at their approach to licensing older drivers.

In Oregon, the Legislature approved a 1999 bill authorizing the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division to convene a committee to study the effects of aging on driving ability. It presented 26 recommendations to the 2001 Legislature.

The committee concluded that chronological age alone doesn't represent a valid or reliable criterion for assessing the risk of being involved in a vehicle crash. Similarly, the presence of various medical conditions does not necessarily support a conclusion that a person lacks the skill to drive.

Based on the committee's recommendations, legislation was passed requiring health care providers to report to the DMV instances of diminished physical, mental or sensory capacity that adversely affect the ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.

The new reporting requirements go into effect in southwestern Oregon this month. They will be phased in to the rest of the state over the course of a year. The Portland area will be phased in last, during spring 2004.

Who must report

Health care providers affected by the provision include:

• A physician or health care provider acting in the capacity of a person's primary care provider.

• A physician or health care provider providing specialized or emergency health care services to a person who does not have a primary care provider.

• An ophthalmologist or optometrist providing health care services to a person who does not meet DMV vision standards.

What must be reported

The cognitive and functional impairments in the reporting requirements are defined as:

• Severe and/or uncontrollable to a degree that precludes (or may preclude) the safe operation of a motor vehicle.

• Unable to be corrected by medication, therapy, surgery, driving device or technique.

• Functional impairments, including sensory impairments, affecting vision, peripheral sensation of the extremities, strength, flexibility, motor planning and coordination.

• Cognitive impairments affecting attention, judgment and problem solving; reaction time; planning and sequencing; impulsiveness; visual-spatial ability; and memory.

Claudia Grimm is the at-risk driver coordinator for the Oregon DMV. She holds a master's degree in social work from Portland State University. She lives in Albany.