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How Old Is Too Old To Drive?

After an 84-year-old driver plowed through an elementary school lunchroom this week, killing an 8-year-old boy, his mother pressed lawmakers to bar the elderly from getting behind the wheel.

"We very much support a mandatory limit on the driving age for seniors," Amanda Wesling wrote in a missive directed at driver Grace Keim, who authorities say was en route to a driving class at a senior citizen's center Monday when she struck and killed 8-year-old Ryan Wesling.

The grieving mother's plea raises new questions about how old is too old to drive, an issue states continue to grapple with in the wake of similar tragedies in recent years.

Driver's licenses are issued at the state level, with each state having its own rules. While many states have enacted or are considering tougher testing for older drivers, they are weighing those changes against the rights of millions of older people to have the independence a license allows.

Among the incidents prompting calls for change:

  • In November, an 89-year-old man whose car hurtled through a farmers market in California in 2003, killing 10 people and injuring more than 70 others, received five years of probation because a judge deemed him too ill to go to prison.
  • Last August, a sport utility vehicle driven by an 89-year-old man plowed into pedestrians and vendors at an open-air public market in Rochester, N.Y., injuring himself and 10 other people. Police say the man's foot slipped off the brake pedal and hit the accelerator.
  • In October 2005 in North Dakota, an 87-year-old woman on her way to a doctor appointment smashed her car into the hospital's lobby, injuring five women. She was not charged.

    At least two dozen states and Washington, D.C., have laws singling out older drivers for special attention, from required road tests to vision examinations, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

    In Connecticut, there is a legislative push to require automatic retesting of anyone over 75 who has had more than two wrecks in a calendar year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In New York, a pending measure would halve to two years the renewal period for anyone over 70.

    "Different states are doing different things, but they're addressing the issue," said Anne Teigen, a research analyst for the NCSL. Still, she says, legislatures are trying to balance safety concerns against the unwavering fact that older Americans want to drive.

    Illinois actually has some of the nation's toughest restrictions on older drivers, joining New Hampshire in requiring a road test for renewals after age 75. Illinois also is among at least 15 states that have an accelerated renewal schedule for older drivers, requiring renewals every two years from ages 81 to 86, and then every year after that — each calling for a road test.

    Advocacy groups for the elderly urge states not to overreact to each high-profile incident, noting that accidents happen in every age group and that taking away an older person's license could rob them of their independence.

    "The issue is not age; it has to do with the person's physical and mental limitations, and that goes beyond age," said Beverly Moore of Illinois' AARP, which represents older Americans.

    Older drivers, she says, still tend to be more cautious behind the wheel, and family members can be involved in helping decide when a driver should give up the keys.

    Studies have shown that vision, reaction time and other driving skills can diminish as drivers age.

    Statistics from the Insurance Institute show that older drivers generally are as safe as other age groups until they reach 75, when they tend to have more accidents. Drivers 85 and older are about as likely to be involved in a fatal crash as those ages 16 to 19, but they are more likely to die than others in car crashes because their bodies are frailer, the institute has said.

    Keim's license was up for renewal March 3, her 85th birthday, and her driving record shows no citations, according to state records. Investigators of the wreck are not divulging what caused her to drive up a dead-end drive and never stop, hurtling through Shiloh Elementary's cafeteria, killing Ryan and injuring two schoolmates. Keim has not commented.

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