I-Team: Elderly drivers

July 8, 2010 2:56:10 PM PDT
John Ford is 86-years-old. A retired Army Special Forces soldier, he survived World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

"I found that service very interesting because we did some sneaky things and very fascinating things," he explained.

Ford went on to work as a diplomat - serving the United States in Africa and Europe. Now, he and his wife are retired, living in Chapel Hill, and Ford has been diagnosed with dementia.

"He's forgetting things, he's making up stories," explained Ford's daughter Gwen. "I don't know if mentally he even knows where he is …The doctors said he shouldn't be driving."

Gwen recently contacted the ABC11 I-Team after getting frustrated with the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles. She said the agency recently allowed her father to renew his driver's license.

"It's clear to you and it's clear to his doctor that he should not be driving?" asked investigative reporter Steve Daniels.

"Right," responded Gwen."I tried explaining to him that 'you shouldn't be driving because you'll endanger people.'"

Ford's family tried to hide his keys, but he's always managed to find them.

"That's how he's sneaking out of the house. He's using his Special Forces training," explained Gwen.

Last month, Gwen's anger reached a climax when her dad vanished for six hours. The Orange County Sheriff's office issued a Silver Alert.

"I just decided to drive. And then I took a turn and found out that I was confused about where I was going," Ford recalled.

Police reunited him with his family - late at night - at a gas station in southern Durham.

"Should they have given him a driver's license?" Daniels asked Gwen.

"I don't think do. I think that they should be required to ask for medical records," she responded.

"What would they have seen if they had tested him on the road?" asked Daniels.

"His reaction time is not good. His judgment of distance is not good," said Gwen.

Research appearing in a medical journal reveals how dangerous drivers with dementia can be.

Researchers discovered that in a 3-year span since the onset of dementia, 41 percent of the drivers had an auto accident, or caused someone else to have an accident.

"I don't see the difference between that and somebody who is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs," Gwen offered.

"And I think as long as the DMV continues to license drivers like that, I think they're responsible for the accidents, the crashes that are happening out there because of these drivers," she continued.

ABC11 went to the DMV to ask them about Gwen Ford's concerns.

"Is North Carolina doing enough to keep older drivers who may be dangerous off the roads and keep the rest of us safe?" Daniels asked DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson.

"I certainly think so. I think the medical, the program we have now is comprehensive," he responded.

Robertson said his department's medical referral program is effective in getting dangerous drivers off the road.

People who are concerned about a driver, fill out a form and then the driver gets their doctor to fill out a 7-page questionnaire.

A DMV panel then determines if the person should be allowed to drive.

"It's not being 55-years-old that makes you drive bad, it's because the arthritis has set in, or the dementia, or Alzheimer's or whatever the underlying condition," Robertson explained.

Robertson says the federal government considers North Carolina's program a model.

But the I-Team discovered other states have much more rigorous standards for older drivers. The District of Columbia requires a letter from a doctor certifying the driver is physically and mentally competent.

New Hampshire and Illinois require a road test.

Illinois also requires annual renewal after the age of 87.

In California, drivers with dementia - like John Ford - have to pass a knowledge test and a road test.

North Carolina simply requires older drivers to renew their license every five years.

"Why can't the DMV take control of this and either require people to come see you on an annual basis, or road test older drivers, or get a letter from a doctor stating that they are qualified to drive?" Daniels asked Robertson.

"We can road test anyone who comes in for a renewal," said Robertson.

"But, it's not required," said Daniels.

"Not required," said Robertson.

"Should it be required?" asked Daniels.

"We think not. Not under current statutes," said Robertson.

"You want those of us who know these drivers best, to get in touch with you?" asked Daniels.

"And ultimately, it's not telling on your neighbor, not telling on your daddy, it's because there's a safety issue here. If they can't safely operate an automobile, somebody needs to tell us," said Robertson.

But after dealing with her father's dementia, Gwen Ford knows firsthand how difficult that can be.

"I think that there should be some way for a doctors to submit directly to the DMV, instead of putting that responsibility on the loved ones, to have to fight amongst the family. You know if we take it to the DMV he feels betrayed," she said.

"I think that if the DMV had asked for records … I don't think he would have gotten his driver's license," she continued.

Gwen has now referred her father to the medical review board at the DMV.

The DMV says about 160,000 drivers are in the medical review program.

Drivers over the age of 65 had about 28,000 crashes last year in North Carolina. That's about 3 percent of all drivers in that age group.

On average, there are fewer accidents with senior drivers. Studies have shown they are more cautious, drive slower, and go fewer miles than younger drivers.

Right now, drivers older than 54 have to get their license renewed every five years.

But, a bill headed to the state House of Representatives for final approval would increase the age to 66.

That means people under the age of 66 would only have to renew their license every eight years.

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