Florida law requires seniors to pass vision test to renew driver's license


Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 11:56 p.m.
BOCA RATON - Tamper with an older person's liberty to drive, the Florida dictum goes, and you're courting political suicide. But on Friday, motor vehicle offices throughout the state began enforcing a new requirement for seniors' driver's licenses.
Under a new law, championed by a legislator who lost a daughter in a car accident and backed by a powerful senior lobby, Floridians 80 years and older must have their eyes examined when they renew their license. Under the old rule, like younger drivers, they could have gone as long as 18 years without a vision check.
Democratic State Rep. Irving L. Slosberg of Boca Raton, the measure's sponsor, calls it the "If you can't see, you can't drive law," and says it will help make the roads safer. Already, 726,000 people 80 and older possess a Florida license, and statistics show they are involved in more than their fair share of accidents.
According to the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, drivers 75 and older made up fewer than 4 percent of Florida motorists in 2002, but accounted for more than 10 percent of the drivers killed.
Only a minority of states impose special requirements on the elderly when it comes to driving, according to Justin McNaull, national spokesman for the American Automobile Association. In Utah, for instance, motorists older than 65 must take vision tests when they renew their license.
Like the tightening of driving laws for teens that occurred in the 1990s, however, McNaull said the United States might have reached a juncture where special requirements for seniors are seen as necessary or desirable. And vision, he said, is one of the easiest things to test.
"You look at the aging going on, the changing demographics in the population, and you realize there are going to be more older drivers on the road in the decades to come," the AAA spokesman said. The special problems those drivers might present, he said, was brought to the nation's attention when an 86-year-old man plowed his Buick through a farmers market in Santa Monica, Calif., in July, killing 10 people and injuring 63.
As long ago as the 1980s, you could see bumper stickers in Florida that demanded grandma's car keys be confiscated to protect other drivers and pedestrians. But it was probably a change in position by the AARP, a potent political force with 2.6 million Florida members, that enabled the new law to pass.
"In Florida, when you tell some people they can no longer drive, in some ways you may be literally giving them a death sentence," AARP state affairs coordinator Lyn Bodiford said. "They have no way to get prescriptions or groceries. They become prisoners in their own homes."
Her organization endorsed the new law, Bodiford said, because of a clause that establishes an advisory council that will study how degenerative processes affect a motorist's vision, mobility, cognitive function and reaction time and how skills training, physical therapy or a change in driving practices might enable people to keep driving longer. The Florida At-Risk Driver Council is supposed to recommend alternative modes of transportation for seniors who can no longer safely drive.
"Baby boomers have grown up driving," said Bodiford. "We have to look at ways we can retain that independence."
Slosberg, who claims to represent more seniors than anyone else in the state Legislature's lower chamber, agreed.
The lawmaker estimates 95 percent of seniors will pass the vision test, which requires corrected vision of at least 20/40 in one eye. The test can be administered by a motorist's doctor or optometrist or by an employee of the driver license office.
But for those who fail, "We just can't say 'bye bye Charlie, see you later.' We have to take care of them,' " Slosberg said. He has filed another bill that would raise an estimated $15 million to help fund transportation for seniors by using fines paid by motorists caught running red lights.
In a legislative district where the average voter is 79, the new vision test requirement seemed at first like "political suicide," Slosberg said. But he met with more than 2,000 constituents, he said, and found 95 percent of seniors supported it.
FYI: Older drivers
  • According to the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, drivers 75 and older made up fewer than 4 percent of Florida motorists in 2002, but accounted for more than 10 percent of the drivers killed.
  • Democratic State Rep. Irving L. Slosberg of Boca Raton, the measure's sponsor, estimates 95 percent of seniors will pass the vision test, which requires corrected vision of at least 20/40 in one eye. The test can be administered by a motorist's doctor or optometrist or by an employee of the driver license office.
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