Queens Residents Demand Retests for Older Drivers After 88-Year-Old Kills Teen In Whitestone
Acuity drops as a person ages, yet New York State law does not seem to care.
Updated — It is a fact that a person’s reflexes and attention span decay with age, so why doesn’t the Department of Motor Vehicles periodically retest drivers, especially those over 80?
Rita Barravecchio has been asking that simple question since late June when an 88-year-old driver ran a red light at Utopia Parkway in Whitestone and slammed into her 17-year-old niece, killing her.
The driver, whom authorities identified as Sheila Kahn Prager, was arrested and is facing a year in prison on a reckless endangerment charge. But for Barravecchio and many of her Queens neighbors, it’s not enough to take drivers like Prager off the road — she wants to make sure addled operators don’t stay on the road without a retest.
“A person needs to prove his or her ability to drive because there are a lot of skills needed,” said Barravecchio, who is expecting 150 people, plus several elected officials, at a rally Monday night at the crash site. “As time goes on, we get careless. Retesting will remind us all how we should be driving and demonstrate that we have fast enough reaction times.”
One of Barravecchio’s neighbors, Julian Ho, started a Change.org petition days after the niece, Maddie Sershen, was run down by Prager. The petition calls for retests every two years for drivers over 80 — and more than 20,000 people signed in less than a month. Currently, 33 states and the District of Columbia treat senior drivers differently than other motorists, with many states shortening the renewal time or requiring a doctor’s letter. In Illinois and New Hampshire, motorists over 75 must retake their road test.
But in New York State, just a vision test is required. Unless someone admits to mental impairment, the state does not take action.
“Simply passing a vision exam is an extremely low standard for a person to maintain their privilege to drive,” Ho wrote in the petition intro. “A person’s memory and reaction time must also be assessed during the license renewal process. Individuals over 80 must be able to demonstrate that they can continue to remain safe on the road.”
There is no question that older adults experience a variety of physical changes that make them less likely to drive safely. The National Institute on Aging said these include, but are not limited to, vision loss, hearing loss, slower reflexes and reaction times, and dementia, plus possible effects of medications.
“Certain aspects of the elderly population’s behavior will put them at a greater risk to cause an accident,” personal injury lawyers Daniel McGee and Catherine Lerer wrote in an op-ed. As such, they will always be considered among one of the age groups that can pose a great danger to other drivers on the road.”
Also alarming: The population is aging. In 2014, one in every seven Americans was over 65. In 2050, it’ll be one in five. Not that New York State sees a problem with that. In a post on its “safety” website, the state admits that senior drivers do have high fatality rates — similar to the youngest drivers — but concludes that “mandatory retesting of just the older segment … would not solve a problem shared by the two age groups.” The state said it was concerned that retesting only older drivers “could be considered discriminatory” and that “the cost of retesting such a large portion of the driving population would be prohibitive.”
Instead, state officials recommend that family members monitor their older relatives’ driving habits, hours and routes, and urge them to administer a self-evaluation test. The state concluded that the “social and psychological ramifications” of losing a driver’s license are worse for the senior than the risk is to society. “The license is a symbol of independence (and) continues to be a nearly indispensable key to mobility in America today,” the state declares on the website.
Rita Barravecchio has bigger concerns than a driver’s freedom. It’s about responsibility.
“What’s driving me is the need for change,” she said. “A simple vision test is not enough. I want to see any change to save lives. It doesn’t have to be over-80. I think everyone should have to prove that he or she can still drive.”
The chairman of the state Assembly Transportation Committee, David Gantt (D-Rochester) did not return a call.
But after this story was published, the DMV sent over this statement:
“In accordance with the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law, the Department of Motor Vehicles cannot treat license holders differently based solely upon their age. If someone is concerned about any driver’s performance on the road, we urge them to contact the DMV right away to request a driver review. DMV may initiate a driver re-evaluation if a driving incident, behavior, or action related to the driver’s performance is reported to the DMV.”
State Senator Tony Avella and Council Member Paul Vallone joined the rally to offer support.
Sheila Kahn Prager’s next court date is Sept. 20 in Queens.