The number of Floridians who have had their drivers licenses revoked because they are deemed physically or mentally unfit has more than doubled in the last decade, state figures show. Chief among the reasons many lose driving privileges: problems related to dementia, stroke, seizures and other health conditions.
A longstanding, but little-known Florida law allows anyone to notify the state about motorists with physical or mental conditions that might impact their driving. The reports are confidential but must be in writing, and include the reporter's name and signature. Motorists who see erratic drivers on the road should call the police, officials say.
Last year, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles revoked 7,716 licenses for medical reasons -- compared to 3,559 in 2000. Most motorists lost their privileges because they didn't submit more detailed medical information requested by the state to show they still should be able to drive.
Many cases stemmed from family members, the public or professionals reporting motorists to the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles after the drivers had been in accidents, became repeatedly confused or lost, or were consistently driving erratically.
While motorists of any age can have medical issues, the rise in revocations may in part stem from Florida's growing number of older drivers, said Fran Carlin-Rogers, a senior transportation consultant from Orlando.
State statistics show:
Another 6,559 licenses were revoked by medical review last year for either failing the state's vision test or not submitting a vision report. Since 2004, Florida has required drivers age 80 and older to have their eyes tested every six years.
More drivers are being flagged, with state statistics showing 9,105 reported for medical reasons last year. A 2000 Sun-Sentinel analysis found there had been 8,294 reports in 1999.
State officials conducted 17,408 new and follow-up medical reviews last year, and 3,101 requests for retests due to medical reasons.
Nearly one in five residents is over 65 years old now, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But by 2030, one out of every four Floridians behind the wheel will be a senior citizen – many who will be living in South Florida retirement communities.
About 7 percent of the reports were dismissed by authorities who determined they had no merit. The state's Medical Advisory Board makes a final decision in such cases, which can include requesting a retest or denying a motorist's license, Howard said.
Alcohol and drug abuse remain the most common reasons state officials revoke Floridians' licenses. There have been about 460,800 driving under the influence and 151,260 controlled substance sanctions filed against drivers and leading to revocations so far this year.
Advocates working with senior citizens say the increase in medical reports suggests more families and physicians -- who might shy away from painful discussions about giving up the keys -- are willing to identify potentially unsafe older drivers by filing with the state. Some families even welcome the increased scrutiny.
A Jupiter woman, whose husband has Alzheimer's disease but asked not to be named because he was a well-known former professional, said she had hoped his doctors would contact the state after her spouse snuck the car keys out of her purse and drove to a nearby hardware store in his underwear. Finally, one physician started the paperwork last month after her husband's health care workers learned of the store trip.
She thinks a confidential reporting system is critical, as dementia patients often won't listen to their family's pleas for them not to drive. She's hidden her keys again as her husband, for now, still has a valid license – which allows him to drive a motorcycle as well as a car.
Mary Barnes, CEO and president of Alzheimer's Community Care in West Palm Beach, said the increase in medical reporting is a good thing.
"I think it's a very positive sign," said Barnes, whose agency provides services to patients and families. "People are better understanding what's at risk when a driver is cognitively impaired."
Carlin-Rogers thinks more law enforcement training and publicity campaigns about keeping senior drivers safe has upped the reporting numbers. Police were the ones most likely to flag medically iffy drivers, filing 42 percent of the 2009 reports, with one-third coming from medical professionals. Only 11 percent came from family members and other third parties.
AARP, which in the past has opposed age-based additional road testing for drivers, has no problem with medical review boards and confidential reports, said spokeswoman Nancy Thompson. "Nobody wants the roads to be unsafe," she said. "If officials and families are paying more attention and taking action in a way that is positive for all, that is a good thing."