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New rulesfor aged drivers

It's time we tested older motoristsfor their ' and our ' safety

Los Angeles Times

Eighty-six-year-old George Russell Weller told police that he may have hit the gas instead of the brake on his maroon Buick LeSabre sedan just before it plowed through a Santa Monica farmers market Wednesday, killing 10 people, including a 7-month-old boy who succumbed Thursday. It is an oft-heard story, though never before such a deadly one. Most people correct such gas-pedal errors quickly, perhaps at the cost of a fender and their dignity. The fog of illness or age can multiply the confusion, turning it to tragedy.

Some people recognize their own dimming capacities and give up driving. Others succumb to the pleas of families and friends. But many simply hope that they can compensate for fading eyesight, slowing reactions and diminished judgment. In sprawling Los Angeles, there is great symbolic and practical value to the car. But driving is a privilege, not a right. Two bloodied and debris-strewn blocks in Santa Monica testify to the need for an outside judge of competence.

The smart first step was attempted four years ago, in a bill by then-state Sen. Tom Hayden. A 15-year-old Santa Monica girl was killed on her way to buy a snack at a grocery store by a 96-year-old motorist whose last driving test was in 1918. Hayden proposed a behind-the-wheel test for drivers 75 and older (as Illinois and New Hampshire now do). The reasonable measure also proposed gradually shortening license renewal periods, to one year by age 90. Current state law requires only that drivers 70 or older pass a written test and vision exam at a Department of Motor Vehicles office.

The most powerful senior lobbying group, AARP, backed a successful effort to gut the bill, but even it admits that age impairs depth perception and reaction time.

— The scale of Wednesday's carnage should encourage legislators to follow the path that Hayden originally set. Democratic state Sen. Sheila Kuehl represents Santa Monica, the site of the tragedy and of the teenager's death in 1998. A natural ally would be Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, a state leader in government reform whose husband was killed in a 1994 car accident.

New laws take time and can't do the whole job. Family members who have been delaying a serious talk with a parent or aunt who shouldn't be driving should seize the moment. The DMV and police officers should also assert their authority under existing law to require behind-the-wheel testing of any driver they suspect is unsafe. Then, if an elderly driver fails the test, the DMV should give the driver information on transit options.

The end of driving is hard and inconvenient for anyone in Southern California, but there are special services that offer help. There is an art to navigating the system, and here are some good places to start.