Road Worriers

Perhaps someone should start taking out ads and distributing leaflets warning visitors to this state that they run the risk of meeting a dangerously impaired Floridian on the road. Armed, as it were, with poor motor skills and/or dementia. Maybe that will prompt the state to get serious about culling the ranks of its unsafe senior motorists.

The most recent example of the problem – and its tragic implications – was the 93-year-old Pinellas Park man who fatally hit a pedestrian and drove another three miles with the body lodged in the car’s windshield. Ralph Parker, the motorist, thought the body had dropped from the sky. He suffers from dementia.

According to Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, drivers 80 and older are required to pass a vision test – nothing more — to renew their license. It’s good for six years, absent a traffic conviction or accident.

By then, as was the case with Parker, it could be too late. Adequate vision – albeit with a touch of dementia, hearing deficits and poor reaction time — will still result in a validly-renewed Florida driver’s license.

In a state with some 270,000 elderly drivers, this is unconscionable.

Sure, the issue is emotionally charged, and any effort at screening will be met with resistance in certain quarters — notably AARP, which has a history of stonewalling age-based restrictions on older drivers. The specter of age bias and the heavy hand of government intrusion will be raised.

But public safety trumps all other agendas. So should common sense.

Right now, unfortunately, it’s largely left to families to play the heavy – and the grim reaper – by asking for a senior’s car keys. Arguably, not enough do.

The state has to step in and set some meaningful, legal limits – and, yes, there’s a level of arbitrariness that is inevitable, whether it’s 75, 70 or the onset of Social Security. But serious screening – a physical, a field test and a vision test – must be part of any effective licensing procedure. Helping our elderly stay safe, while looking out for everyone else, should be the goal.

Perhaps Gov. Jeb Bush could get behind a campaign to start seriously screening elderly drivers — and avoiding unnecessary, tragic – and inevitable – deaths on the road. It might even be a better legacy issue than FCATs, privatization and Wilma response. It may even pre-empt another leaflet distribution to tourists.

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