Older Neb. drivers respond to cognitive test bill


LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Supporters and opponents of a bill that would require drivers older than 80 to pass a cognitive test to renew their licenses spoke out Tuesday about the measure, which according to its sponsor would be the first to call for such a test.

Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms told lawmakers that Nebraska would be the first state to require a cognitive test if his bill passed, but not the first to require extra requirements for older motorists to renew their driver's licenses.

"It's about medically impaired drivers. We want to try to identify them," he said.

But motorists like 76-year-old Jack Sample argue that the bill discriminates against seniors.

"We as family members take the responsibility seriously enough that we have to have the courage to tell (older relatives) when they're done driving and not expect you, who certainly have enough on your table as lawmakers, to reach into the family and tell them you can't drive anymore," said Sample, who lives in Grand Island.

He and others testified before the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

If passed, the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles says it would need $57,000 in 2014 to hire more driver's license examiners.

Harms said he introduced the bill after hearing of the U.S. Census Bureau's predictions that more older drivers will be on roads over the next 20 years. He said constituents also shared their concerns about older family members who drive.

He pointed out that Washington, D.C., requires drivers older than 70 to bring a note from a doctor that says they're physically and mentally capable of driving. Illinois requires drivers over 75 to take a driving test. And several other states require older motorists to renew their license in person and to take a vision test.

Cognitive testing is necessary to ensure drivers don't have any impairments, such as dementia, that effect their reasoning, judgment or memory, Harms said. Drivers who fail a cognitive test could take a written driving test, he said.

Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft said she's not so sure the DMV is the right place to tell a senior he or she needs to visit the doctor. She said a decision over a person's mental capabilities behind the wheel is "best between physician and patient."

Dr. Bonnie Dobbs of the University of Alberta, who testified in support of the bill, said not all patients have close relationships with their doctors and cognitive issues can go undiagnosed.

Harms recommended the DMV use Dobbs' testing called Simard MD. Through research, Dobbs said she created a cognitive test that would take drivers seven minutes to complete. The test is free for DMVs to use.

Dennis McNeilly, a clinical psychologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said in an interview that it's not likely a short DMV exam would adequately test an elderly person's full driving abilities. Cognitive testing for someone older takes time and could involve doctor visits, he said.

"I doubt there is a magic test that will tell you definitely if the person should be driving," McNeilly said.

He said the best approach is to ask the adult children of senior drivers if they would allow their children to ride in a vehicle with their grandparents. If the answer is no, then it's time to ask a doctor to evaluate whether the grandparent is able to drive, McNeilly said.

ARRP Nebraska advocacy director Mark Intermill said AARP wants lawmakers to conduct a study to determine how to best identify unsafe drivers and "assure that those individuals who stop driving are able to get around in their communities."

"That's a lot of 80-year-olds who will need to get to the grocery store, to the doctor's office, to church on Sunday, to the airport in Omaha to catch a plane to visit the grandkids," Intermill said. "The issue that LB 351 raises is how this growing population of 80-year-olds will make those trips safely when they need to be made."

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