September 2014 Bar Bulletin
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September 2014 Bar Bulletin

Can Giving Up the Car Keys Empower Seniors?

By Nicole Li and Maureen A. Wickert


Families, physicians and attorneys can take a collaborative approachto tackling the question of whether a senior should continue driving.

"If you get in the car with Nana, you drive," my father told me. Although my grandmother attributed the scrapes and dents on her car to the carelessness of other drivers, the rest of us understood the more likely cause. None of us wanted to confront her, let alone suggest that she give up driving.

She lived in a city with a complicated public transportation system that usually required transfers and wasn't always safe. Moreover, we understood Nana's ability to drive was part of her self-image and an exercise of her independence. Luckily, Nana never caused injury to anyone during the time she probably should not have been driving.

For many senior citizens, the loss of driving privileges leads to depression, a decreased social life, inactivity, and difficulty accessing necessities such as health care services and groceries. Taking away the car keys might prevent an accident and injury, but it does not ensure vitality. Is there a way to address concerns about an elderly driver that respects both the individual and the safety of the public?

This issue is far from new. Every time a high-profile accident occurs involving an elderly driver, policy makers and others propose measures to detect and address the potential dangers. Many recall the 86-year-old man who mistook the accelerator for the brake pedal and killed 10 people at a Santa Monica farmer's market in 2003. Despite proposals to purportedly prevent such accidents, few states actually impose any requirements or assessments specific to seniors.

Washington's Department of Licensing (DOL) does not have restrictions based on advanced age. However, Washington law clearly prohibits issuing a license to someone who cannot competently or safely operate a car due to a physical or mental disability.1 After issuance, a driver's license can be revoked or suspended if the licensee becomes disabled in a way that impairs driving skills. Disabling conditions can include physical limitations of the neck or extremities of the body, dementia, uncontrolled epilepsy or Alzheimer's disease, among others.

DOL reviews a driver's ability to drive on an individual basis through an eye exam, questions about medical issues or a road examination. This review is done at the time a person applies or renews a license or upon a specific request from a third party.

A Driver Evaluation Request form,2 available on the DOL website, can be submitted by any law enforcement officer, medical professional or concerned citizen. Based on the information within the form, DOL may find just cause to request a medical evaluation of the reported individual. "Just cause" is usually based on a driver's medical condition, vision condition, history of accidents or poor driving skills. Following a medical evaluation, DOL may require the driver to submit to a practical re-examination.3

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