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Seniors’ competency behind the wheel is a judgment call

Teenagers are far and away the most dangerous drivers on the road. Closing quickly in their rear-view mirror are seniors.

That is according to statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. For drivers 70 years old, the number of crashes per miles driven jumps significantly toward teen levels. Those 85 or older are second in crashes to 16- to 19-year olds and behind only 16- to 24-year olds in collision claims and property damage liability claims.

Whether you are 16 or 116, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles treats you equally. The DMV requires that all drivers renew their licenses every four years.

The only difference is, beginning at 71, drivers renewing by mail must provide a physical evaluation from a doctor. In- person renewals do not require a physical, and an on-site eye test is administered just as it would be at any age.

DMV spokesman Kevin Malone said the department rarely denies someone a license unless he "obviously can’t drive."

Malone gave examples of people who were missing limbs, could not stand straight or could not see.

"It’s not necessarily age-based," Malone said. "We’re very hesitant to do that. We’ll renew almost anyone’s license."

The only medical condition that could prevent someone from receiving a license, by law, is epilepsy, Malone said.

Doctors are required to notify the state Board of Health of patients diagnosed with epilepsy. The board notifies the DMV, which sends a letter to the person asking him to submit a physician’s evaluation. Depending on the evaluation, the DMV may ask him to surrender his license or it may suspend it for a period of time.

"It’s very much an individual thing," Malone said. "You can’t say there’s a certain age. Some people can’t drive when they’re 40; some can drive fine when they’re 80."

That system is frightening to some in the community.

Summerlin residents Ivan and Janice Fankuchen are both 71 and support increased testing beyond vision after a certain age. Neither of them has had a ticket in 30 years, Ivan Fankuchen pointed out.

"Above the age of 65 or 70 they should not be allowed to renew their license without a driving test," Fankuchen said. "I believe it would avoid a good percentage of accidents. If I apply to get my license renewed, and I can’t pass that (driving) test, my license should be taken away.

"These elderly people, I’m talking 80 to 85, that can barely see over the steering wheel, it scares … me."

There were about 21.6 million licensed drivers 70 or older in 2008, or about 10 percent of all drivers. Those numbers are expected to increase as more baby boomers are living longer.

At an AARP driver safety program last month at MountainView Hospital, instructor Bob Greene administered a four-hour class to a group of 10 drivers.

Lynne Herman, 54, attended the class with her 82-year-old mother. Herman, who explained that she had problems driving at night because of poor vision, said she would support more stringent tests.

Herman also said she is in the awkward process of trying to talk her mom out of driving.

"She’s been getting in accidents lately," Herman said. "She’s starting to really have problems.

"My concern is she’ll be stuck in the house all day, and I hate to do that. The car really gives her independence. It’s the independence to go and do little things. I hate the idea of taking that away from her."

If the roles were reversed, how would Herman feel if her daughter asked for her keys?

"I think that would probably just really irritate me a lot," she said. "The very thought of somebody telling me because of my age I can’t do this, it would really irritate me. I hope when I get to be the age I’d be able to say, ‘That’s enough.’ "

Greene is 82 and the former chief trainer in Nevada for AARP instructors.

One part of the class asks, "When should we stop driving?"

"It’s a personal thing that you have to decide," Greene said. "When do you turn the keys in? When it’s unsafe for you to drive. It’s judging our own driving. It’s hard to figure out. It really is."

Greene said stubbornness plays a big part in it.

"You run into older people that, I hate to say it, they think they know everything," Greene said. "They don’t realize they’re not the same as they were 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. Their bodies are not the same. They don’t see as well. They don’t react as well.

"I’m no kid, either, but thankfully I enjoy good health."

More information about the safety program can be found at aarp.org or by calling 888-227-7669.

Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at jmosier@viewnews.com or 224-5524.

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