Re-testing with risk is huge disincentive

Last week a friend sent me an e-mail in which he said:

"I've sure gotten old. I've had two by-pass surgeries and a hip replacement. Now I have prostate cancer and diabetes. Cataracts make me half blind, and the ears are getting bad. I take 11 medications ­ some make me dizzy and subject to blackouts. Also have dementia and poor circulation ­ sometimes I can hardly feel my hands and feet. Can't remember if I'm 78 or 87. Most of my friends have passed on, but Š thank God, I still have my driver's license!"

That's supposed to be humorous, but it started me thinking about my own driver's license. I've had one for 65 years (in New Mexico we could get a license at age 14 back then), and I've never had an accident ­ something I'm rather proud of.

But I got to wondering, it's almost certain that my driving skills have deteriorated. Occasionally I'll be talking or thinking about something and will drive past where I should have turned. And sometimes my wife points out other faults. She's helpful that way. So, has my driving gone downhill enough to be concerned about? How can one tell?

My current license was issued this past year, and is good for five years. To the best of my memory, I've never had an actual driving test (a road test) in the 31 years we've lived in Arizona. So, I trotted out to the Department of Motor Vehicles to see about taking such a test.

I explained to the receptionist, "I would like to be examined to see whether I'm still driving safely at age 79. I have not had a road test in at least 30 years, and I'd like to know if there are areas that need improvement. Can I do this?"

The receptionist was pleasant, but she seemed a little uneasy around an odd, old geezer who would ask such an unlikely question.

"No," she did not know about taking a road test if the applicant already has a valid license, but she'd find out. She called the supervisor, and after a lengthy conversation, the answer was "Yes" ­ I could get such a test. But I'd have to schedule it about three weeks ahead, and there would be a significant risk involved: if I failed any part of the test, they would take my present license away ­ immediately.

That's a big disincentive.

And it really clouded the picture. I'm confident I could pass a road test, but there lurks the possibility of losing something important with nothing tangible in return. So why risk it? It no longer seemed like such a great idea, and I left disappointed.

I can understand that if a person is impaired, physically or mentally, and cannot drive safely, the state shouldn't let him or her drive. But in the real world it happens all the time. Sometimes unknowingly. How do you learn about your shortcomings ­ other than your spouse pointing them out?

Seems like it would be worthwhile for a person to know before an accident. Maybe he could correct the problems. If he fails part of a test, perhaps he could receive a conditional permit and a period of time to remedy the problem, then be retested.

Arizona now issues "extended" driver's licenses that do not expire until age 65. Drivers 60 and older must renew every five years, and everybody has to get a new photo and vision screening every 12 years. But no road test is required, or readily available.

If the family is worried about grandparents driving ­ for his own safety or for everybody else's ­ it would be helpful to have some way of getting an objective opinion about their abilities. This might also help him face reality and give up his car keys, if he should. But convincing him to take a road test under the present rules will be difficult.

What do you think about voluntary testing for us old drivers? Tell the editor.

(Al Herron is a former hospital administrator, and current Prescott resident.)