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Age 80 and behind the wheel

As lawmakers pass a bill requiring older drivers to take vision exams, many targeted by it applaud.

Published May 2, 2003

[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
Ruth Chadwick, 91, and her Snowball, 19.

ST. PETERSBURG - Ruth Chadwick grabbed the car door with both hands, slowly coaxed it open and smiled at the familiar creaks and groans.

"Want to see how well Snowball runs?"

Snowball. One of the last of the American luxury liners. A showroom clean, 2-ton, bone white 1984 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. Chadwick, 91, and her late husband, Edwin, bought the car when it was new. She named it Snowball and took care of it most of its life.

She slid behind the wheel and turned the key.

"It's good if the state starts testing the eyesight of people my age," she said. "Because people like me may be a menace. I ask myself all the time if I'm a good driver. And I think I am. I don't drive at night, stay off the highways, and I don't go far.

"But I love my car. It means freedom to go places. Like the Rotary Club. I play the piano there once a week. Have for 36 years. I truly love that."

Chadwick's license expires in 2005, and if a bill passed Thursday by the Florida Legislature is signed into law by Gov. Bush, she and the 726,000 other licensed drivers in the state over age 80 will have to take an eye examination when they renew their licenses.

Applicants could be tested at driver's license offices or, if renewing by mail, submit a physician's form saying their vision is adequate.

Under the current law, there are no restrictions based on age. Licenses typically are renewed every six years if a person has a safe driving record, and it can be renewed twice without taking a vision test.

Florida is unusual, state officials say, because many senior citizens move here from other states and don't have a network of relatives to call on for support. Many seniors also feel uncomfortable using public transportation, if it's available. So getting to a doctor's appointment or a grocery store can be difficult without a car.

Bill Lenahan looked around the dining room at the Sunshine Center, which was filled with senior citizens having lunch.

"But I know people right here who shouldn't be on the road," said Lenahan, 80, a retired New York City Police Department lieutenant.

"I used to stop older people who were weaving back and forth," he said. "And they weren't drunk. I usually let them go, but I told them they were liable to kill somebody if they kept driving. So I think testing eyesight is good."

At the Sunshine Center and other senior centers like it, those who can drive often post their names and phone numbers on a bulletin board so those who need a ride can arrange one.

Bob Sanchez, spokesman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said his office supported the bill.

"If you look at the crash statistics, the group with the highest rate of crashes in relation to the number of licenses is the 15-19 age group," Sanchez said. "And the safest group is the 65-69 category.

"But when people reach their 80s, the numbers go up again. And you have to remember there are fewer miles driven by older drivers. So for their own safety and the safety of those on the road, the vision tests are a good thing.

"But we realize there are good and bad drivers in all age groups."

Sponsors of the bill say the main reason it breezed though the House and Senate is the support of what is usually the most vocal opponent of age restrictions - the American Association of Retired Persons.

State restrictions on driving privileges for people over a specific age have come before the Legislature several times in recent years.

But until now, AARP Florida opposed the legislation "because we don't believe there's a direct correlation between chronological age and the ability to drive," said Bentley Lipscomb, state director of the 2.6-million member AARP Florida. "But this bill specifically addresses the ability to see.

"There is ample scientific evidence that vision does deteriorate with age."

Lipscomb said AARP also dropped its opposition because lawmakers added provisions to the bill that require HSMV to study the effects of aging on driving ability and what happens to people who lose their driving privileges because of diminished eyesight.

"In the past, every bill I can recall said for people over a certain age, you must do X," Lipscomb said. "We objected to that. This bill says that beginning with your 80th birthday, you need to have your vision tested."

AARP Florida also asked that drivers 80 and older do not have to go to driver's license offices to take the test. Instead, the tests would be administered by a physician and mailed along with the renewals.

"We don't see any problem with this," Lipscomb said. "If you cannot see, then you shouldn't be on the road. That has nothing to do with age."

The major problem among older drivers, Lipscomb said, isn't vision impairment.

"It's cognitive impairment," he said. "According to the Centers for Disease Control, we have about 300,000 people in Florida with Alzheimer's disease. The driving ability of our senior citizens impacted by this disease is considerable."

Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, who sponsored the bill in the House, said Thursday: "If you can't see, you can't drive. There's a small percentage of people who can't see, and they're a detriment to all seniors and the public at large. We have to test them."

Slosberg also said he was considering legislation next year to add hearing and reflex testing.

Among the books and trinkets inside Early J. McMullen's dusty 1989 Plymouth are the things he cherishes most: his harmonicas. He hands them out to people in his Tampa neighborhood. McMullen, 82, figures he's given away at least 700. His great-grandfather came to Pinellas County from South Georgia in a covered wagon. In Clearwater, there's a road named after his family.

"I'm able to get a few places, but just barely," he said. "I don't go far in my gypsy car."

McMullen also thinks people over 80 should get their eyes tested if they intend to drive.

"About a year ago, I went to my doctor, and she wanted me to have my eyes tested," he said. "I thought I was seeing all right.

"But I found out I had cataracts. I didn't know what they were. So I had them taken out.

"I can see the pretty gals a lot better now."

- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 2, 2003, 08:37:22]

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