Hanging up the keys | Senior citizens outliving their ability to drive

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TWIN FALLS, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) Although Americans are healthier and living longer than ever before, AAA says seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of seven to 10 years.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of people 75 to 84 years old still have an active driver’s license. While those who are 85 and older, 70 percent, still have a legal valid driver's licence.

The Department of Motor Vehicles states that anyone over the age of 62 may only renew their license every four years, instead of every eight years.

“They can place restrictions on your licenses,” said Max Mohr, Idaho State Police trooper. “They can require you wear corrective lenses while you’re driving.”

According to the DMV, anyone who doesn’t have 20/40 vision (with or without corrective lenses) in one eye is deemed ineligible to operate a motor vehicle. This is measured through the Snellen test which is completed at the DMV when applying for/renewing a license. However, if an applicant fails to meet this standard, they may still be licensed upon the recommendation of a qualified physician and the passage of a road skills test. At 20/70 or higher in both eyes, the department may suspend driving privileges regardless of a physician’s recommendation, unless a departmental hearing determines otherwise.

“Do they have a good field of vision?” asks Cameron Clark, physician assistant. “Can they see enough when they come up to an intersection at 35 miles per hour, can they see both roadways at the same time?”

Through occupational health, St. Luke’s Magic Valley has a driving simulator they can use for their patients. It can test reaction times and their ability to move their foot between pedals.

“It’s a very good assessment to assure their safety,” Clark said.

He says the conversation about revoking driving privileges can be difficult and requires sensitivity.

“I think you need to be honest first and foremost,” Clark said. “You’re driving a very large vehicles and it could cause some significant harm to themselves or other people. Maybe it’s time we should stop driving.”

He says it’s also important to monitor what medications patients are on. Some sedating medications could impair their judgment.

“Do they have any cognitive or mental impairments, even if it’s mild can cause an accident behind the wheel,” Clark said.

A new state law that came in affect last year places different penalties on drivers who are driving with a suspended license.

"If your license is suspended for medical reasons or DUI or any other reason that isn’t monetary, it’s a misdemeanor,” Mohr said. “That’s arrestable or we can cite and release, it's officer discretion. You’ll have to appear in court for that.”

According to AAA, older drivers typically recognize and avoid situations where their limitations put them at risk. They drive less after dark, during rush hour or in bad weather, and avoid difficult roads such as highways and intersections. Officials say that’s when senior drivers might find themselves at an unexpected road block.

“If we stop someone with a suspended license, we will definitely not let them drive away from that scene,” Mohr said. “Wherever they are we will sit there and wait till somebody can come get them.”

While the issue of taking away the keys from loved ones is a nationwide issue, it’s a conversation Cameron Clark says should be discussed in every household.

“It definitely is tough, when you think about driving, it takes away their freedom, their independence,” Clark said. “There have been studies showing taking away their driver’s license can increase their risk for depression.”

In Idaho, 88-year-old John Hadam from Eden suffers from macular degeneration, a degenerative eye disease. Earlier this month he was driving without privileges when he was involved in an accident that seriously injured another driver who was sent to Saint Alphonsus in Boise.

“Everyone was just going ‘oh, my god,’ we couldn’t believe it,” said Linda Lee, a resident of neighboring Hansen.

Lee told KMVT she was upset to learn Hadam was still driving, especially since this isn’t his first accident.

“When people are seriously hurt I don’t think a fine is enough,” Lee said. “I don’t think any dollar amount can be put on it. Something else needs to be done.”

According to a crash previous reported on by KMVT, Hadam was involved in a prior accident in October 2016 that sent three highway district employees to the hospital.

“We do have a responsibility to keeping the rest of the community safe,” Lee said. “And if that means taking a vehicle away from him than yeah we need to, because in the end we’re going to be as responsible as they are if somebody get critically hurt or killed.”

Reporter Kelsey Souto sat down with Hadam and asked if he was done driving.

“I’m through,” he said.

The DMV sent KMVT this statement about what people can do if they have a family member they believe is no longer able to safely drive:

"To achieve its obligation in protecting the safety of the public on the highway, the Department of Motor Vehicles through its agents, which include law enforcement and medical professionals, may request that any individual, regardless of age, submit to any exam if there is evidence suggesting that individual may be incompetent to operate a motor vehicle. These assessments may also be initiated by a concerned driver’s direct family member. Qualified physicians do have the authority to restrict driving privileges or request that the driver submit to additional testing (e.g. a road skills test completed through the DMV)."

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