Missouri motorists forced to prove driving safety

Saturday, July 26, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Nearly 2,300 Missourians received letters from the state in the past year asking them to prove they were still able to drive safely, in response to a program that allows people to file confidential complaints about drivers.

About one-third of the targeted drivers failed physical examinations or driving tests and had their licenses revoked, according to figures provided by the state Department of Revenue. Some others had their driving privileges limited in some fashion.

The program, which began in 1999, does not specifically target older drivers. But nearly three-fourths of the motorists who received certified letters asking for proof that they were still capable of driving safely were age 60 or older.

The leader of the Missouri chapter of the AARP said Friday that she was unfamiliar with the program. But after reading a summary available on the Internet, interim state AARP director Christine Michalek suggested the tipster program may not be the best way to get older drivers to give up their keys.

"I'm very concerned about the sensitivity," Michalek said.

Nowhere in the program did she find a stipulation that people filing a complaint would have to talk to drivers perceived to be causing problems prior to informing the state.

Under the program, people are supposed to file a "Driver Condition Report" only if they have firsthand knowledge that a driver may no longer be able to safely operate a vehicle. People are asked to describe the motorist's medical conditions and driving behavior. The form specifically says that age alone is not a sufficient reason for a person to be retested.

Revenue Department officials determine whether a complaint warrants a letter asking a driver to receive physical fitness approval from a doctor, pass a vision test or pass a written or driving test, depending on the person's circumstances.

In the fiscal year that ran from July 1, 2002 through June 30, the Department of Revenue sent out 2,280 such letters to licensed Missouri drivers. About 750 of those people had their licenses revoked.

About half of the letters sent to drivers were prompted by reports filed by license office employees who had just reissued a license to a driver but felt uncomfortable with his or her abilities.

To renew a driver's license, Missouri typically requires only that people pass a vision test and road sign recognition test. There is no physical exam or driving test. Licenses last for six years for most people, but three years for people age 70 and older.

Several hundred retesting letters sent last year stemmed from complaints submitted by law officers or medical workers. An additional 145 letters resulted from complaints made by family members of the drivers.

Talk with father

Michalek said those are the touchiest situations. When her own father appeared to be losing his driving skills around age 90, she and her siblings spent a long time persuading him to finally quit driving. Her father lives in Wisconsin and would not have been subject to Missouri's driver-reporting law.

"I think it would have caused major personal jeopardy to our relationship if I hadn't spent a lot of time with him coaching him about alternatives to his driving and being sensitive to the loss of his independence," Michalek said.

Missouri law allows misdemeanor criminal charges to be brought against anyone intentionally filing a false report against a driver.

Revenue Department spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said she was unaware of any charges being filed. She also said the department did not track how many complaints it received, only how many resulted in letters to drivers.

"When you consider that about a third of those requested end up in a revocation, the driver condition reports and those who file them are truly doing so with the best interest in mind," Robinson said, "and the other two-thirds are confirming that this person is safe to be on the road. So I would say that the program is successful."

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