Therapists test reaction time, cognitive understanding and driving ability to help people know when it's time to hang up the keys.
DELRAY BEACH - In his six decades of driving fire engines and an assortment of other vehicles, Richard Blanchard has never had an accident.
But his spotless record didn't stop his wife from telling him, at age 74, that he should consider giving up his keys.
"I opened my big mouth. I saw these things, like when we were playing cards, he wasn't as fast, or when he'd be driving, he might get distracted by something," Phyllis Blanchard said. "That was frightening to me."
She said new laws, including one that requires vision tests for Florida drivers who are 80 and older, do not provide enough assurances that older drivers are capable of staying safe behind the wheel.
At Phyllis Blanchard's urging, her husband saw a neurologist, who agreed with her concerns. But instead of telling Blanchard to stop driving permanently, he referred him to a driver rehabilitation program to determine whether it's time to hang up the keys.
In Florida, such programs have become increasingly popular for those wary of losing their independence.
Therapists test drivers' reaction time, cognitive understanding and driving ability - in parking lots, along residential roads and on Interstate 95.
Therapists then give clients recommendations to keep on driving or get off the road; they forward the results to state authorities to enforce.
"Our goal is not to take people off the road. If they're safe to drive, then we want to keep them driving," said Bonnie Kasmere, a certified driving rehabilitation specialist at Pinecrest Rehabilitation Hospital, about 50 miles north of Miami. "But if they're not safe to drive, we want to make the recommendation that they shouldn't be driving."
The 4-year-old program and others like it are gaining more attention as the driving population ages and states take action to ensure drivers' safety.
In 2001, 16 percent of drivers were 65 and older; by 2030, 25 percent are expected to be in that age group.
More than 20 states have requirements for older drivers, such as the vision test required for Florida drivers. In some states, including Florida and Missouri, people can submit confidential tips that an older driver is no longer safe on the road. The state then can require the driver to pass a driving program, physical examination or vision test. If a driver fails to comply, the state can suspend the person's license.
The new precautions often are greeted with protests by senior citizens groups and the drivers.
"I've been told twice, "I'm going to sue you if you take my car away.' And physicians are very sensitive to that," said Dr. Juergen Bludau, medical director at the Joseph L. Morris Geriatric Center in West Palm Beach.
"A lot of what I hear is, "My mother or my father really only drives to the grocery store or the barber or the beauty parlor.' And I often tell them, "That's where accidents happen. It's not on I-95. It's just around the corner.' "
For Blanchard, the questions about his driving ability were difficult to accept. He said he "almost exchanged words" with his doctor but instead shook his hand and gave his keys to his wife.
"To me, it was about caring enough to say something about his driving," Phyllis Blanchard said. "We have a good life and we want to keep it that way."