Elderly drivers don’t live test-free in N.H.

Mass. studies program’s results

Joan Sternberg, who turns 77 on August 8th, prepares to take a road test to renew her New Hampshire license. Joan Sternberg, who turns 77 on August 8th, prepares to take a road test to renew her New Hampshire license. (Mark Wilson for the Boston Globe)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / August 4, 2009

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MANCHESTER, N.H. - New Hampshire doesn’t require drivers to have insurance and is the only state without a seat belt law for adults. But for decades, the libertarian-leaning state has done something Massachusetts has consistently shied away from: forcing elderly residents to take a road test if they want to keep their driver’s license.

Officials say the law has screened out thousands whose declining skills pose risks on the road, both the nearly 10 percent of seniors who fail the test each year and an untold number who decide their abilities have slipped too far to even attempt it.

“The first two minutes of the test is tell-all,’’ said Jeff Oberdank, a licensing officer at the Manchester Division of Motor Vehicles who has administered some 50,000 road tests over the past decade. “I absolutely think it makes a difference in keeping the roads safe.’’

About 900 elderly drivers fail the test statewide each year, many of them clearly unfit to operate a vehicle, he said. Without the road testing, some would almost surely have eventually caused a serious accident, he said.

Seniors last year made up nearly 15 percent of all licensed drivers, but were involved in just over 9 percent of crashes, a rate that state officials and national driving safety specialists say is testament to the program’s success.

Some opponents, meanwhile, argue that the program isn’t necessary.

Officials in New Hampshire and national driving safety specialists say it is hard to compare the state’s numbers with statistics in states like Massachusetts, where major accidents tend to be fewer because urban settings keep speeds down and there are fewer dangerous rural roads.

In 2007, New Hampshire drivers 75 and older were involved in nine fatal traffic crashes, compared with 32 in Massachusetts, according to federal statistics. That year, New Hampshire drivers age 65 and older were involved in 11 percent of all fatal crashes, slightly lower than Massachusetts’s 11.6 percent.

New Hampshire officials and some national safety specialists believe the state’s accident rate would be much higher if it did not test elderly drivers.

“We don’t know for certain if ours is the best system,’’ said Kevin O’Brien, chief of policy and planning at the state’s Department of Safety. “But it seems to be working pretty well.’’

Massachusetts drivers must renew their licenses every five years, regardless of age, but only must do so in person every 10, when they are required to take a vision test. New Hampshire’s road test, however, requires drivers age 75 and older to visit the DMV twice as often, a requirement that national safety specialists say has been shown to reduce accident rates.

“It’s the one thing that seems to have an impact,’’ said Russ Rader, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spokesman.

Increasingly, New Hampshire’s law, which has been around so long that its origins are murky, is viewed as a vanguard. Massachusetts supporters of road testing point to their northern neighbor as evidence that elderly drivers can be screened without undue expense and hassle. Federal transportation officials, searching for a litmus test to identify unsafe drivers, are studying whether the targeted road tests reduce accidents and save lives.

“I don’t think anyone can dispute the fact that our faculties get rusty as we age,’’ said Jennifer Brown, a New Hampshire state representative from Dover and vice chairwoman of the Transportation Committee. “And with the baby boom bubble, I think everyone’s going to start seeing the helpfulness in having this law. I think we’re ahead of the curve.’’

New Hampshire’s support, or at least tolerance, of road testing contrasts sharply with the ongoing debate in Massachusetts, where elderly advocates and lawmakers are sparring over tougher testing of senior drivers. Despite mounting public outrage over crashes, the most recent of which killed a 7-year-old Halifax boy in a crosswalk, and growing calls for testing elderly drivers, many lawmakers remain opposed to age-based oversight.

Several bills seeking to detect unsafe drivers are under debate in the Massachusetts Legislature’s Transportation Committee, and although such proposals have stalled in the past, members say they are confident new legislation will emerge this fall. Lawmakers are lobbying for more frequent testing of all drivers and requiring doctors to notify the registry when patients’ conditions pose a danger.

But as Massachusetts studies New Hampshire’s program with interest, some Granite State lawmakers are pushing to eliminate it, arguing it is not worth the trouble. Robert Williams, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he has received numerous complaints that the law discriminates against the old. Williams said that elderly drivers are becoming progressively safer.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that between 1997 and 2006, crash deaths nationally among drivers age 70 or older fell 21 percent, even as that demographic swelled 10 percent.

“For the most part, we wind up testing people who are still able to drive well,’’ he said.

Other data, however, show that drivers’ skills deteriorate steadily over time. Drivers age 65 to 74 are more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than all but the youngest drivers (ages 16 to 24), according to a 2007 report by the US Government Accountability Office, and those 75 and older are more likely than any other age group.

At the Manchester DMV office yesterday, 77-year-old Joan Sternberg hesitantly backed her Ford Taurus into a parking spot, as Oberdank looked on before getting into the passenger seat. As the two headed out for the test, her daughter, Jean Toto, said Sternberg does not drive much anymore.

Toto said she thought her mother was still a pretty good driver, although at this point it is better that she avoids large, busy roads. Still, she liked the idea of a second, unbiased opinion.

“Testing’s a very good idea, I think,’’ she said. “It makes me feel better that it’s not all on me.’’

Before long, Sternberg was back, and Oberdank flashed the thumbs-up sign to Toto. She had passed. “A little overly cautious, but she did fine,’’ he said.

“That’s good, that takes a load off,’’ Toto said.

“He’s still alive, isn’t he?’’ Sternberg quipped.

Sternberg said she was nervous about the test beforehand, and glad it was behind her, at least for another five years.

“It doesn’t seem fair, but I guess it’s not a bad idea,’’ she said.