Doctors can help improve driver safety

Guest Editorial
Let no one accuse all or most elderly drivers as more likely to cause traffic accidents than other age groups. Good and bad drivers come in all ages who legally are able to drive.

But there also is evidence that because of deteriorating mental or physical health, some drivers shouldn’t operate a motor vehicle. A new Michigan law acknowledges that fact and makes provisions to help prevent these drivers from taking the wheel.

The law clarifies the role of physicians and optometrists regarding their patients’ ability to drive safely. It allows doctors and optometrists to alert state government when patient have vision loss, dementia or other health issues that could undermine their ability to drive.

Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said the office receives about 400 requests a month to double-check a driver’s ability. About half come from from law enforcement agencies. The remainder come from family members or doctors.

The statute promises to protect physicians optometrists from liability when a patient with health or mental issues is responsible for a traffic accident. It strengthens safeguards against dangerous motorists, and it makes physicians allies with families who believe a relative has no business driving.

It’s a problem many families know well.

Despite medical factors that disqualify him or her from driving, the family member insists on getting behind the wheel.

Families often find themselves at odds with relatives with the prospect of taking away their keys. Elderly relatives can be especially problematic. Revoking their driving privileges can signal the loss of their independence — a proposition family members are reluctant to propose, and the mother, father, uncle or aunt is resistant to accept.

Doctors and optometrists can perform an important service. With their medical expertise, the concerns they raise about a patient’s driving ability can carry more weight than those of his or relatives’ objections.

The law doesn’t specifically target elderly drivers, but it is likely to have the greatest impact on the ones whose age-related medical conditions no longer permit them to operate a motor vehicle.

It is important to note that a physician’s letter to the state doesn’t constitute grounds to revoke a patient’s driving privilege. It simply raises a red flag.

The patient’s suitability to drive will be determined by a driving test — a reasonable traffic safety precaution.