LINCOLN — Jack Sample experienced a few harrowing moments as a state driver's license examiner.
Glass once showered around him after his test subject hit a street lamp. Another driver guided the car onto a sidewalk after realizing she was going the wrong way on a one-way street.
Sample, a Grand Island retiree, said Tuesday that the worst drivers were young, middle-aged and old.
So a bill that would require drivers 80 and older to pass brain-function tests before renewing their licenses strikes him as biased, he told members of the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.
A family doctor or a family member should decide when it's time to take away the keys of an older driver, not an examiner, Sample said.
“Since when has it become the responsibility of government to enter into family and medical issues,” he said. “Since when?”
The committee also heard from a leading researcher on the subject of medically impaired driving who advocates for such testing.
Bonnie Dobbs of the University of Alberta said nearly one-quarter of all Americans between 80 and 89 suffer from some type of dementia. So starting the tests at age 80 makes sense, she said, although she wouldn't oppose starting them even a few years sooner.
“Nebraska does not have an older driver problem; it has a medically impaired driver problem,” she said.
The committee took no action on Legislative Bill 351 after nearly two hours of testimony.
State Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff, the bill's sponsor, said he would be open to studying the issue further after the session ends so it could be revisited in 2014. The important thing, Harms said, is to develop a policy that will allow Nebraska to address a problem that will only grow in the future.
As the baby boom generation ages, the number of drivers 85 and older in Nebraska is projected to increase from about 21,000 currently to about 53,000 in 2030, Harms said. AARP Nebraska estimates that the state will be home to about 130,000 people 80 and older by 2035.
“We're just starting to see this issue,” he said. So far, no other states have required cognitive tests for older drivers, he noted.
Nationally, fatal crash rates start increasing for drivers after they turn 75, and they rise notably after age 80, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
Dobbs argued against relying solely on loved ones and medical doctors to identify unsafe drivers.
Some drivers impaired by dementia fail to recognize when they've become a danger. Some doctors miss the signs as well. And many older drivers don't have close family members nearby to monitor their behavior, she said.
A test called Simard MD has been developed specifically to test for the cognitive skills needed for driving, Dobbs said. The test takes about seven minutes to complete and about one minute to grade, and it is available to motor vehicle departments at no charge.
A lobbyist for the Nebraska Medical Association also testified in support of the bill. Two people testified against it.
AARP Nebraska was officially neutral, but Mark Intermill, the group's advocacy director, said the organization opposes additional screening or testing based solely on age. He spoke in favor of an interim study.
“That's a lot 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,” he said.
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