CHP Commissioner Dwight Helmick’s Address to the Senior Legislature
Highway Patrol Commissioner Dwight “Spike” Helmick delivered
a speech on seniors and driving to the California Senior Legislature
during the group’s Oct. 21 session in the state Capitol. That speech
is reproduced in its entirety here.
I particularly appreciate joining you this year because we share such a strong common interest in the relationship between older people and their motor vehicles. Public discussion on this subject is volcanic -- it explodes when an event like the Santa Monica crash occurs. It subsides in the interim periods. For those of us concerned with reaching real solutions, the issue of course is ongoing. I think that applies to both of us -- your Senior Legislature and my department. We truly seek balanced answers that produce optimum results.
We know this will not be achieved without careful attention to many details. We understand that a great deal of analytical effort must precede decision making. I’m sure you grasp the wisdom of this thoughtful approach.
Even with these common understandings, we come to the discussion with different perspectives. The 22 1/2 million people who hold drivers’ licenses expect me to think safety first. Safety obviously becomes my measuring rod. For you, the discussion probably starts with mobility and ranges outward to the related issues of independence, convenience and freedom of movement.
Let’s make it clear at outset that I am very much aware that safety and mobility are both desirable and supportable objectives, just as I know your members are completely cognizant of the safety implications, and you would not wish to take any steps that compromise safety. Do we come to the table believing that a divergence of perspectives means common ground will escape us? I hope not.
We are here to discuss, and 50 percent of any discussion is listening well. If we are good listeners, we become more open to the facts and conclusions that recommend possible change. Our job is to make sure that change moves us forward. As a legislative body, you clearly will seek a practical interlock between the needs and desires of the individual, and the needs and desires of the broader public. That’s what legislative bodies do -- search for answers that solve problems and accommodate various points of view. That’s idealistic of course, and we never quite reach that perfect balance, but we do have the responsibility to try.
Let me start with the demographic realities. California and the entire nation are growing old. The over-65 segment of the California population which numbers about 4 million now will more than double by the year 2030. Not all of those seniors are drivers, but a great many do drive, want to continue driving and very often have no plans for what they will do if they stop driving. I’ll talk a little bit about that later.
The crash statistics involving older people tell apparently conflicting stories, depending on which rate calculation we examine. The per-mile crash rate of drivers over 75 or so tends to rise, and turns up more sharply after age 80. The per-licensed driver crash rate is almost flat from age 50 right through to very old age -- rising just a bit in the 85-plus age bracket. So, if we were making a pessimistic case, we might use the per-mile rate. And if were optimists, we would publicize the per-licensed driver rate.
What’s the difference? Exposure. Older people drive less, so their actual crash involvement is lower. I’m talking absolute numbers here, not rates. Even though their per-mile crash rate is higher, their reduced road mileage means that their per-driver crash rate will be low, because they are involved in a lower number of collisions.
So which rate should we rely on? Both, because they each reveal something we need to know. It’s also important to know that the annual mileage recorded by older drivers has been rising and apparently will continue to do so. Does that mean a major increase in crash expectation because, as I just noted, the per-mile crash rate for seniors is higher?
Perhaps not. The Department of Motor Vehicles earlier this year published a study called Teen and Senior Drivers, which included the typical per-mile crash-rate graph for various age groups. DMV then looked back at the same type of graph made 10 years ago. The rate for those 80 and up had dropped a bit. DMV notes older people are healthier today, and being more fit may be reflected in driving capability.
DMV also notes that people with relatively low mileage “tend to accumulate more of their miles on congested city streets with two-way traffic, including pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles, and no restriction of access. High-mileage groups, on the other hand, typically accumulate a substantial proportion of their miles on divided multi-lane highways with no cross traffic and limited access -- and the accident rate per mile is lower.”
That sounds encouraging, but it is still true that the surge in the senior population predicts an accompanying increase in crash casualties, for two reasons. No. 1, more older people on the road of course means greater exposure. No. 2, crash consequences for older people are considerably more severe than for the 25-year-old. The word that describes this is fragility: the older person’s body simply can’t handle crash forces as well.
So these points define why safety is such an important issue, and they reveal why the Older Californians Traffic Safety Task Force was formed. The Highway Patrol accepted the role of task force chair because we see this as an avenue for greatly increased senior safety -- in other words, a mechanism to make sure the dire casualty predictions don’t come true.
Even though the task force has been operating for less than a year, a number of ventures have already been initiated. Let’s start with what we call the aging services work group. They plan to produce a description of screening and assessment tools that care providers can use to help judge driving capability. That means older people will have an independent resource with the skills to assist them in identifying functional problems that interfere with driving. This can lead to appropriate rehabilitation.
Another group is studying the recently issued American Medical Association Guidelines for Physician’s Assessment of Older Drivers. They expect to provide doctors with simplified explanations of the various “red flags” that suggest a patient may experience problems with driving.
When doctors become comfortable with these criteria, helping patients understand their driving limitations should become a more frequent element in the diagnostic process. I think this should be reassuring to seniors, because the opinion of a personal physician carries so much weight. It also opens a comfortable avenue for the families of older at-risk drivers to seek the doctor’s help in assessing functional limitations that affect driving.
We have a law enforcement group studying the potential for helping peace officers recognize and report problem driving behavior that recommends re-examination by the Department of Motor Vehicles. That process actually exists today, but the behavioral benchmarks that suggest a driver may be incapable need much refinement.
Another group is working to promote new federal guidelines that spell out significant recommended changes in highway hardware -- signs, striping, lighting and pedestrian amenities. One proposal, for example, would result in increasing the size of lettering on highway signs, a measure that will benefit not only seniors, but everyone who drives.
Still another group concerns itself with the various aspects of information and education. The stereotypical older driver is basically a flawed image because it attaches the problem driving behavior of a few older people to the entire senior population. That poses a huge task -- shifting the winds of public opinion -- which probably will be as challenging as convincing Californians to wear safety belts. (I have a pretty good idea of just how much work that has been).
That brings me to licensing, the center of our recent focus because of the Santa Monica tragedy. An event of that prominence results in a firestorm of public comment, both in the media and through personal contact with organizations that can have an affect. One of those targets was the Highway Patrol, and I can summarize the opinions we received in two simple statements. One group despaired of older drivers and desired to see much-increased governmental monitoring and control of the senior licensing process. Another group -- older people -- had strong concerns that their licenses would be unfairly jeopardized by inflexible procedures adopted in response to a rare incident.
My involvement suddenly became front and center, because I told the press that maybe we ought to look at periodic retesting of people as they age. What age? Well, perhaps 75 or thereabouts. The media lost something in translation. Let me clarify that right now. When I see an event as catastrophic as a 10-death crash, and the possibility that the mental or physical infirmities of age were a factor, I look for options. I see a number of options, based in large measure on all the alternatives our task force is now pursuing. And I also see driver testing as a possible option to be evaluated. The media had me standing in concrete on that point. I was actually standing on ground that needs to be plowed. I see plowing as the pre-requisite to planting a new process or new idea. So please view it in that light.
Additional testing should be held as a possible approach, studied dispassionately and evaluated.
I have asked the task force to do that. I understand that seniors have strong questions about the fairness of the testing process. I have seen research showing that older people, asked if they would object to periodic retesting, answer “no” in majority percentages, but they add this qualifier: “as long as the test is fair.” The licensing work group within our task force is working on that specific issue, through the auspices of the DMV research process.
DMV has field-tested a routine which they are calling “three-tier,” meaning that people would proceed through three phases of the test process to determine their fitness to drive. The first tier would include the standard vision and knowledge tests, plus several new elements. One would be a simple cognitive screen, another would be a test of visual contrast sensitivity, and the third a discrete observation by DMV personnel of certain characteristics that might affect driving -- examples are difficulty in walking, or tremors.
Failure in this first phase could result in referrals to appropriate medical sources and eventually bring the applicant to tier two. This consists of computerized reaction time measures that determine the ability to recognize visual cues and respond correctly within defined time lines. Failure here would bring the person to the drive test, this one with some special features that reveal cognitive problems.
DMV researchers are working their way through the data, approximating January 2004 as the time when they can discuss conclusions. The Legislature has expressed strong interest in reviewing three-tier and perhaps incorporating it into the DMV testing regimens through legislation.
If this occurs, DMV indicates it could introduce three-tier for priority re-examinations of drivers referred by doctors, or police or family members. As you know, drivers attaining the age of 70 already must return to DMV for vision and knowledge tests. Possibly three-tier could also be incorporated as the process of choice for all of these returnees.
You probably understand that the key issue connecting the entire range of older driver safety issues is assessment: how do we build a test that is valid and therefore fair? I think that’s what seniors want, and have a right to expect. This is not to say we will discover the silver bullet. Human beings differ too much to make any test absolutely perfect; but we can get close. And we are in the process of doing that.
Let me add here that our process is deliberately deliberate, which is one way of saying that we proceed with care. My sense of what we have heard at previous legislative hearings is that this branch of government expects to exercise similar prudence.
I said earlier that I would come back to the subject of ceasing to drive -- not a pleasant thought for many people, including me. The Senior Legislature could look at this issue, perhaps from the standpoint of supporting measures that make it easier for people who must give up driving. One major concern is transportation options -- how do I get around if I can’t drive? Public transportation over time should expand to serve such needs, and public awareness needs to be substantially increased to let seniors know about services available now.
Beyond this, you can help the seniors you represent confront the reality that some day they may no longer be capable of driving themselves. Working out a strategy before the need arises makes a lot of sense. It’s a hard sell, I know, but it’s a message whose time has come.
I’ve talked about a lot of issues and potential answers today. The main message, however, has been this: The safety of senior drivers, vehicle occupants and pedestrians has been raised to a high priority in California. We know it’s high on your agenda, too. We appreciate that. And we appreciate your willingness to be a participant in the process. Thanks for asking me to join you this morning.
Dwight “Spike” Helmick has served as commissioner of the California Highway Patrol since 1995.
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Last updated 11/4/03