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Monday, Sep 24 2012 11:00 PM

ALBERT ABRAMS: A better way to test the ability of older (and younger) drivers

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    Albert Abrams

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I am 84 years old. A few weeks ago I went down to the DMV, took an eye test, answered a few questions and got my driver's license renewed for five more years. No one checked my gait, my reaction time or my memory. No one checked my actual driving skills. I have a friend who is 90 and recently had the same experience. He will be 95 before the DMV sees him again. Now, my friend and I both think we are of sound mind and body, at least good enough to drive. Neither of us wears glasses and we both have good driving records. But there is no denying that we are elderly and our physical condition may change dramatically in a brief period of time. So I ask myself, "Is there a point when we should consider the driver's age when issuing a driver's license?" We already do this with the young drivers, but how about the older ones?

There is no denying that our reactions degrade with time; that our eyesight gets worse; that we experience some memory loss as we age. But this is an ongoing phenomenon. And it occurs differently for everyone. Mobility is an essential part of our lives; giving up driving or having it denied us is a life-changing event. But how do we protect ourselves from the diminished-capacity driver who is a potential threat to us? We have seen or read about diminished-capacity drivers causing chaos on our streets and highways. These are not just the elderly, but also the distracted driver: the drunken driver; the texting driver; the cellphone user; the real estate agent who looks at a map while driving.

Toothaches are a distraction and so are headaches. Being sick with the flu reduces your ability to think and react. Even adjusting your radio can cause momentary distraction. There are many conditions that have a negative impact on our ability to drive. But only the mention of advanced age makes us think of those people as a distinct class.

I believe that some form of "driving test" should be performed annually on all drivers after the age of 70. The eye test is, of course, essential. The written test is, in my estimation, questionable. Unless it is designed to cover current additions to driving regulations, it has no function other than to test your memory. Knowing a lot of facts is in no way a measure of your ability to respond while driving. But requiring more frequent driving tests, in the same manner we currently do, would be very expensive. So I propose that we create a driving test machine similar to a video game that we see in the game arcades. The several states could band together and fund the design and development of such a machine. A video game company, in cooperation with one of the auto companies, could be contracted for such a development.

What I envision would resemble a video game: an enclosed space resembling the interior of a car (enter the car company) with a wraparound screen, appropriate pedals and a steering wheel. A variety of programs would be available to test the driver's skills through situations projected on the screens. A computer would evaluate the skills of the "driver" and possibly identify problem areas.

The possibilities are substantial. Each DMV location could have a number of these machines and they could be administered by one employee. They might even be privately owned, but sanctioned by the state.

These are the fantasies of an aging driver who does not wish to lose his license simply because of the number of years that he has walked this earth. But I also do not want to be a threat to the life and limb of the others who are driving and walking on this same earth. This approach could be used for drivers of all ages.

Albert Abrams of Bakersfield is a retired aerospace engineer. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.

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