Harms hopes bill leads to talk on medically impaired driving

Story by Mallory Miller, NewsNetNebraska

Solve the problem before it starts. That is the goal of Sen. John Harms in introducing a bill that requires a cognitive test for all drivers older than 80.

With the number of Nebraskans older than 65 expected to double by 2030, Harms of Scottsbluff worries about the safety of Nebraska’s roads with the increased number of drivers who may be medically impaired. By 2035, some 130,000 drivers in Nebraska will be 80 and older.

The test required in his bill would allow authorities to evaluate cognitive impairments in medically at-risk drivers through a short series of physical tasks.

Percent of crashes involving drivers over the age of 80 in the past 10 years.

Percent of crashes involving drivers over the age of 80 in the past 10 years.

Feedback from the community

Reactions to the bill have been mixed, Harms said, but he was actually surprised by the number of positive responses he has received from seniors.

Many of the negative reactions came from people concerned about how those older than 80 would get around, especially in rural areas, if they could no longer drive.

AARP Driving Safety
AARP Driving Safety Resources. Click for link.

That is what has AARP concerned.

“That’s a lot of of 80-year-olds who will need to get to the grocery store, to the doctor’s office, to church on Sunday, to the airport in Omaha to catch a plane to visit the grandkids,” said Mark Intermill, advocacy director with AARP Nebraska. “The issue that LB351 raises is how this growing population of 80-year-olds will make those trips safely when they need to be made.”

The cost of the testing is expected to be about $73,000 a year statewide for increased administration, according to the bill’s fiscal impact statement.

Harms hopes that through further discussion and study over the coming months, a solution can be reached. This will involve the continued input of organizations that he used while first developing the bill this summer, including the AARP, the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles, the Nebraska State Patrol and others.

How it would work

The bill would require drivers who fail the cognitive test to be given a computerized written exam. If the bill passed, the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles would also administer a driving test to applicants who fail the cognitive test. That would be an important component, according to the driving instructors interviewed.

William Saxton, an instructor at Road Ready driving school in Lincoln,  agreed with the need to administer a driving test for those who fail. He said older drivers often are nervous about the testing process in general and have problems taking the written exam because it is done by computer.  Saxton, who has been teaching driving courses for 15 years, said that when instructors take seniors on the road they are better able to evaluate their driving abilities.

Dave Muma, a Michigan driving instructor who has experience administering cognitive driving tests, also believes it is important for examiners to be in the vehicle with drivers.

“People can usually snow the examiner for about 20 to 25 minutes,” Muma said. “The longer you have them out there, the more you get to see their real driving habits.”

Muma administers driving tests for the state of Michigan through Century Driving School in Holland, Mich. The school also performs a cognitive driving test for law enforcement and medical drivers called the Driver Competency Assessment. This test takes about an hour and has drivers out on the road for the length of the test.

He said that the test proposed in LB351 could be subjective. Because it is not expected to take longer than seven minutes, it may not be as accurate as a full driving test, he said. In his research of other cognitive tests, which are primarily done in Canada, he has also seen extremely high failure rates in the mature driving population.

Meanwhile, the bill, which received a public hearing, remains in the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. And Harms will continue to look for solutions, he said.

“Whatever decision we make  needs to keep dignity for our seniors.”

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