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Driver Rehab Keeps Seniors Safe

In six decades of driving fire engines and other vehicles, Richard Blanchard never had an accident.

But his spotless record didn't stop his wife from telling him, at age 74, that he should consider giving up his keys.

"I opened my big mouth. I saw these things, like when we were playing cards he wasn't as fast, or when he'd be driving, he might get distracted by something," Phyllis Blanchard said. "That was frightening to me."

She said new laws, including one that requires a vision test for Florida drivers who are 80 and older, do not provide enough assurances that older drivers are capable of staying safe behind the wheel.

At her urging, Richard Blanchard saw a neurologist, who agreed with her concerns. But instead of telling Blanchard to stop driving permanently, he referred him to a driver rehabilitation program that helps older drivers decide when it's time to hand over the car keys. And eventually, Blanchard got a green light from the program to keep on driving.

In Florida, where the perpetually blinking turn signal could be the unofficial symbol of the state's highways, driver rehab programs have become an increasingly popular way of determining whether seniors are still fit to drive.

Therapists test drivers' reaction time, cognitive understanding and driving ability. They conduct the tests everywhere from parking lots and residential roads to the much more treacherous terrain of South Florida's Interstate 95.

Therapists then give the client a recommendation to keep on driving, or get off the road; and they forward the results to state authorities to enforce.

"Our goal is not to take people off the road. If they're safe to drive, then we want to keep them driving," said Bonnie Kasmere, a certified driving rehabilitation specialist at the Pinecrest Rehabilitation Hospital, about 50 miles north of Miami. "But if they're not safe to drive, we want to make the recommendation that they shouldn't be driving."

The 4-year-old program and others like it are gaining more attention as the number of older drivers increases and more states take action to ensure their safety.

In 2001, 16 percent of drivers were 65 and older; by 2030, 25 percent are expected to be in that age group.

More than 20 states have requirements for older drivers, such as the vision test required for Florida drivers age 80 and older when they renew their licenses. New Hampshire and Illinois require road tests for those 75 and older, while in Nevada, drivers 70 and older who renew licenses by mail must include a medical report.

Other states, including Florida and Missouri, allow people to submit confidential tips that an older driver is no longer safe on the road. The state then can require the driver to pass a driving program, physical examination or vision test. If a driver fails to comply, the state can suspend the person's license.

The efforts are aimed at preventing accidents such as the July crash at a farmers market in Santa Monica, Calif., that was caused by an 86-year-old driver and left 10 people dead and dozens more injured.

But the new precautions often are greeted with protests by senior citizens groups and the drivers themselves.

"I've been told twice, 'I'm going to sue you if you take my car away.' And physicians are very sensitive to that," said Dr. Juergen Bludau, medical director at the Joseph L. Morris Geriatric Center in West Palm Beach.

"A lot of what I hear is, 'My mother or my father really only drives to the grocery store or the barber or the beauty parlor," Bludau said. "And I often tell them, 'That's where accidents happen. It's not on I-95. It's just around the corner."'

Bludau said some measures complicate an already difficult situation. The American Medical Association issued guidelines this summer to help doctors tell when older patients' driving is questionable. But he said doctors do not have the time to accurately assess drivers' ability in the same way a rehabilitation program can.

"It seems ridiculous almost to think doctors will sit down, and in a 10-minute interview with a patient discuss this issue which has tremendous implications," he said.

Despite all the concerns, doctors and driving rehabilitation specialists say reason ultimately wins with most patients.

For Blanchard, a mild-mannered and jovial former firefighter, it was difficult to have others question his driving ability. He said he "almost exchanged words" with his doctor but instead shook his hand and gave his keys over to his wife.

Two weeks later, he was dodging construction debris on busy South Florida roads in a Pinecrest student-driver car. He passed his tests, but will be required to take a road test annually at the Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles.

Now the couple, who call themselves newlyweds after 10 years of marriage, are going on with their regular bingo outings and trips up north to visit the eight children, 23 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren they have between them.

"To me, it was about caring enough to say something about his driving," Phyllis Blanchard said. "We have a good life and we want to keep it that way."

By Jill Barton

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