The state has fallen short of its goals for making older drivers safer, and officials say a lack of money is the reason.

The Maine Strategic Highway Safety Plan cites older drivers as one of the top 14 safety concerns. Numbers from the Department of Transportation show that for every 1,000 crashes involving drivers older than 65, 8.8 people are killed.

That’s nowhere near the 34.8 fatalities per 1,000 crashes for motorcyclists and 29.5 for drunken drivers, but it’s almost twice the fatality rate of 4.5 per 1,000 crashes for 16- to 18-year-olds.

The highway safety plan calls for preventing an increase in crashes and fatalities involving drivers older than 65, a growing segment of the population. It cites, as goals, reducing fatalities among older drivers by 10 percent by 2014 and upgrading screening of those drivers by 2013. It proposes three strategies:

Educating older drivers and their families about the issue and encouraging them to self-assess and, when necessary, restrict their driving.

Incorporating new tests for older drivers to renew their licenses, to measure cognitive impairment and conditions such as dementia.

Developing alternative modes of transportation so that when people finally give up driving, they can remain independent and involved in their communities.

The plan, produced in January 2011, projected implementation of the strategies in 2011 and 2012. A lack of funding has scuttled that timetable, said Patty Morneault, director of the division of licensing for the Secretary of State’s Office.

Dr. Dan Onion, a gerontologist who serves on the Maine Senior Driver Coalition, which advocated for the changes, said he’s disappointed that there hasn’t been more progress.

He said the issues and the steps to address them were identified a decade ago, and the only thing that has changed is the number of older drivers.

Onion said one of the most important tools for ensuring that those drivers are safe is the Roadwise Review program developed by AAA. The online assessments test drivers on various skills and can give drivers and their families information they need to decide how much driving — and where — is safe.

“The way to effect the most change is by educating the public, especially the senior drivers themselves and their family,” he said. “I frankly think we could solve 90 percent of the problem if we could get everyone aware of Roadwise Review and help them to use it. Most people want to do the right thing.”

Information about the Roadwise Review is at seniordriving.aaa.com and at AAA offices.

Morneault and Onion are working to revise the medical standards for driving so they include cognitive standards such as the ability to process information and make decisions rapidly. That is the first priority, Morneault said, although she hopes her division can make progress on the other areas.

But public service campaigns, like one to encourage older drivers to assess their own abilities, cost money that the Secretary of State’s Office doesn’t have. And the state has been unable to find the grant funding the plan envisions for new testing for cognitive ability, in pilot programs in Cumberland and Franklin counties.

Morneault said she hopes the state will find the money to make the changes because they are important.

Identifying alternative transportation for people who give up driving could be the most problematic issue.

“If I take a driver’s license away from an individual who lives in Jackman, what type of transportation is available to them to get to Augusta or Farmington to conduct business?” Morneault said. “That’s the challenge we have as a state.”

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]