AUGUSTA, Maine — Secretary of State Charlie Summers has begun an exploratory process that he said could lead to changes in driving laws affecting elderly motorists.
Summers said recent accidents involving elderly drivers in Maine, as well as national statistics that show higher accident and fatality rates among elderly drivers, prompted him to target this age group in his initiative, which comes on the heels of stricter laws for teen drivers he proposed that the Legislature adopted this year. Summers said recent crashes in southern Maine, including a highly publicized case of an elderly driver traveling the wrong way on Interstate 295 in Freeport in January and another earlier this month in Portland, highlighted the problem.
Summers said he seeks to strike a balance between new regulations that appropriately take some drivers off the road for medical reasons and the fact that Maine has relatively few public transportation options.
“We have to take a hard look at what the issues are,” he said. “We want something that takes into consideration that for many people in Maine, their ability to drive is their connection to the outside world. Many people in this state drive 20 or 30 minutes just to get to the grocery store or the drugstore.”
Summers said any proposals will be subject to approval by the Legislature and its Transportation Committee.
“I hope that by the time the next Legislature gets in that we would have something for them on this issue,” he said. “I don’t want people to get the wrong impression; there’s nothing coming imminently.”
Summers has tasked a Bureau of Motor Vehicles Medical Advisory Board with exploring how medications and interactions between medical conditions might affect driving ability, according to Megan Sanborn, who works in the secretary of state’s office.
Maine ranks fourth in the nation for its percentage of fatal crashes involving drivers 65 or older and ninth in terms of the number of licensed drivers in that age bracket, according to a report released in February by the nonprofit national transportation safety organization The Road Information Program, or TRIP. According to data from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ website, about 189,000 of Maine’s 1 million drivers in 2011 were 65 or older.
The only Maine driving law that applies specifically to elderly drivers is the requirement that people 65 and older must renew their licenses every four years — as opposed to every six years for everyone else — and those over 62 are required to pass a vision test. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles has the authority to deactivate or put restrictions on a person’s license in response to concerns from doctors or a person’s family members, but those referrals are voluntary.
“We already require a vision test. There may be other tests that may be appropriate,” said Summers.
Summers said part of the solution he’s working on is to increase the frequency and availability of driver safety programs for seniors and their families by having his department work with car dealerships to host the courses.
“We need to look and see what the issues are and how we can address them,” said Summers. “We don’t want to take steps to disenfranchise older people from their independent lives.”
Correction: An early version of this story incorrectly stated the age at which Maine drivers must begin having vision tests for their license renewals. The correct age for that requirement is 62, not 65.