LINCOLN — To older driver Pat Harre, “cognitive test” sounds like something designed to get her off the road.
So the 79-year-old Lincoln woman said Friday she dislikes a proposal in the Nebraska Legislature that would require drivers 80 and older to take a brain function test before renewing their licenses.
“They're discriminating against us,” Harre said, drawing nods of agreement from three friends gathered at the Lake Street Senior Center in west Lincoln.
Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff said he introduced Legislative Bill 351 not to discriminate but to improve traffic safety.
Driver's license examiners would be able to administer a simple test to evaluate an applicant's short-term and long-term memory. The results would flag applicants with possible symptoms of dementia. They then would undergo additional testing before a determination on renewing the license was made.
“This is about saving their lives, as well as the lives of others on the road,” Harms said, adding that he is 72 and no longer drives at night.
The bill is driven in part by the increasing numbers of older drivers on Nebraska roadways.
The number of drivers 65 and older in Nebraska has increased every year since 2005, according to the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety.
There were nearly 237,000 such licensed drivers last year, representing almost 17 percent of all motorists.
Census projections show the number of Nebraskans age 65 and older will grow from about 247,000 in 2010 to about 412,000 in 2030.
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.
But the CDC also says the increases are largely explained by older drivers being more susceptible to injury and medical complications from a crash.
Though there are more older drivers on Nebraska roads, the number of injury crashes involving those 75 and older has generally declined since 2001, said Fred Zwonechek, who heads the Highway Safety Office.
In 2011, 678 such crashes — 20 of which resulted in fatalities — were identified.
Zwonechek attributed the accident decline largely to public health efforts and physicians being more willing to advise older patients when to stop driving.
The ability to safely operate a vehicle also is affected by health, Zwonechek said. So a person older than 80 but in good health overall very well could be a safer driver than a 50-year-old with serious physical or mental ailments.
“The age is not necessarily the factor — it's really your health,” he said.
Other states require cognitive tests for older drivers, Harms said, but he was unsure of the number.
Driving is so closely tied to independence that many older drivers are likely to be skeptical of any new requirements that could take away their keys before they are ready to give them up.
Getting out of the house and remaining active also helps sharpen the minds and bodies of older people, said Mary Lou Cotter, 75, who drives.
“It represents freedom,” she said. “You get out to meet people that way. You're not isolated in your home.”
But she knows there will come a time when she'll park her car for the final time. Cotter said she'll let her doctor tell her when that time arrives.
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