Calif. Drivers Could Face More Extensive Memory, Reflex Testing

Down the road, getting a California driver’s license could get a lot tougher.

The state is considering using more extensive tests to evaluate a driver’s memory, reflexes and vision to identify people who shouldn’t be behind the wheel.

The proposed program comes at a time when more aging baby boomers are on California’s congested roads, although the Department of Motor Vehicles insists that older drivers are not the targets.

“What we can do is try to identify drivers who probably can’t drive safely,” said David Hennessy, a research program specialist who recently retired from the DMV.

“This is something we’re especially sensitive to because of the aging of the baby boomers. We’re looking to accommodate and acknowledge that fact,” Hennessy said.

A pilot program is under way, but it could be years before the proposed program takes effect.

The agency expects to reach preliminary conclusions by 2010 and report to state lawmakers the following year, said DMV spokesman Michael Marando.

The earliest that all California drivers could face any of the new tests would be 2012, and then only with the Legislature’s approval.

Problems with reflexes, memory and vision occur most often with older drivers, but can also be found among young and middle-aged people.

There have been high-profile cases of elderly drivers losing control of their cars and causing major accidents, including an 86-year-old driver who crashed through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market in 2003, killing 10 people.

Over the past few months, DMV officials in six Northern California offices ran a trial run of the new tests, which were given to English-speaking drivers who were unable to renew their licenses by mail. Those drivers were 70 or older, or didn’t have clean driving records.

The DMV did not release the results, or reveal whether any licenses were revoked.

The first test checks for obvious physical limitations, such as being unable to walk to the counter unaided. Another exam is a new eye test in which the chart’s letters fade from black to a very light gray on a white background, which could show that a driver might not easily see a white truck in fog or a dark car parked in the shade.

A third test requires motorists to write down their Social Security numbers by memory, or their ZIP code, if they don’t have the former.

A failure of any of these tests could result in another exam to check reflexes.

Motorists are asked to sit in front of a touch-screen computer, and a silhouette of a car or truck flashes on the screen for less than half a second. The driver is then asked to press a button on the computer screen asking if a car or a truck was seen. The test repeats, with the silhouette flashing for shorter durations.

“It’s a measure of how fast a person can process visual information,” Hennessy said.

Drivers could be required to take a road test. Licenses can only be revoked if a driver fails the road test.

As a last resort before revoking a license, DMV may offer motorists the chance to test their driving skills in their neighborhoods and, if they pass, receive a license restricting them to that area. They could be subject to other restrictions, such as being barred from driving at night, dawn or dusk.