MILWAUKEE (WITI) — Is it time for Grandma to hang up the keys? An 86-year-old state senator says “maybe.” That’s why he’s pushing for more frequent testing of older drivers — a proposal that’s already facing strong opposition from one powerful group.
When Cheryl Vorwald’s father was killed, her daughter Paige was just three years old. She is 10 years old now.
“She talks about him a lot,” Vorwald said.
Unlike her younger siblings, Paige has faint memories of her grandfather, whose life ended abruptly in January of 2007.
David Smith and his wife were walking out of Bed Bath & Beyond in Racine when a 2001 Toyota Echo blindsided them in the crosswalk.
“She put on the gas and hit my dad. He hit the car, broke the windshield and fell, hit his head,” Vorwald said.
Smith suffered a traumatic brain injury and died.
According to Vorwald, the 89-year-old driver who hit him kept on shopping.
“She shouldn`t have been driving,” Vorwald said.
Vorwald is convinced that age played a role in the crash. So, for the past seven years, she’s been urging state lawmakers to require more frequent testing of elderly drivers.
For the fourth time since Smith was killed, someone in Madison is trying to do just that.
“You may be capable one year, you may not be capable another,” Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) said.
Sen. Risser is sponsoring a bill that would require drivers aged 75 and older to renew their licenses more frequently than everybody else — once every four years, instead of every eight.
“Eight years is way too long,” Sen. Risser said.
Of the states that do not have special provisions for older drivers, Wisconsin’s eight-year renewal cycle remains the longest in the country.
“I definitely think there should be additional testing,” Vorwald said.
A wrong-way driver sent motorists on I-43 into a panic when she headed south in the northbound lanes in 2012. She was 81 when this happened, and hadn’t been to the DMV since she was 73.
“People change. Their eyes change. Their body changes in eight years time,” Sen. Risser said.
Sen. Risser’s bill would require a vision test every four years for older drivers, but it would not require any written or behind-the-wheel tests.
The bill was formally introduced on January 9th, and it’s already facing stiff opposition from one influential group.
“We object to this bill because it singles out older people,” Helen Marks Dicks with AARP Wisconsin said.
Dicks is a policy advocate for AARP Wisconsin.
“Younger drivers per mile driving have a lot worse driving record than older drivers,” Dicks said.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says elderly drivers have among the lowest crash rates per licensed drivers of any age category, but that’s largely because they drive less.
When adjusted on a per mile basis, crash rates rise dramatically after the age of 75.
However, Dicks says there’s a better way of dealing with that.
“If Uncle Claude can`t drive because he`s nutty as a fruitcake, and can`t see, and he never wears his glasses, there`s a lot of things you can do to make sure he isn`t on the road,” Dicks said.
Dicks points to Wisconsin’s program for reporting medically-impaired dr
ivers. It allows anyone to report a driver who has a medical condition and could pose a danger on the road.
However, a FOX6 Investigation found most referrals come from police officers after a driver has been involved in a crash.
“It is too late, because either that person has gotten hurt or someone else has gotten hurt,” Vorwald said.
Studies on whether more frequent license renewals for older drivers would save lives have been inconclusive, but Vorwald and Dicks agree on one thing.
“I think there`s a problem with people not having the courage to look at friends, neighbors or relatives and saying to them, `I think you`re driving days should be limited,’” Dicks said.
“We need to watch them drive. Be attentive to what`s going on. Get behind the wheel with them to see how they`re doing,” Vorwald said.
It is a matter of independence versus public safety.
The driver who struck Smith in Racine seven years ago is now 96.
Police did not file charges against her, but did refer her to the DMV to take a driving test. Instead, she says, her son talked her into giving up the keys for good.
Meanwhile, Sen. Risser’s bill is expected to get a public hearing before the legislative session ends this spring.