Print Posted by California Drivers Advocates on 11/08/2017

Aging California Drivers with Dementia are an increasing concern for the DMV

Aging California Drivers with Dementia are an increasing concern for the DMV

            As the Baby Boomer generation ages, the frequency of drivers being diagnosed with Dementia/Alzheimer’s Disease is increasing at an alarming rate.   The most recent studies available indicate there are approximately 500,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the US.  In California alone, there are an estimated 50,000 people who develop this disease each year.

            When a person is diagnosed with Dementia, there is a flood of concern about how their lives will be affected.  Initially, they may not consider that their driving privilege may be in jeopardy as well.  Because Dementia is often a progressive disease, it can have an increasingly debilitative effect on a person’s driving skill. The progression of Dementia is usually gradual, but over time it affects cognitive functions that are a critical element of driving.  The hard truth is that everyone with Dementia will eventually lose the ability to drive because the disease will cause problems with:

  • Judgement
  • Multi-Tasking
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Impaired spatial skill
  • Anger management issues
  • Other cognitive deficits

As the number of drivers diagnosed with Dementia increases, the California Department of Motor Vehicles finds itself walking a tight-rope between its mandate to ensure public safety vs. the rights of individual drivers.  While working to protect lives and property is a solemn duty; suspending the driving privilege of a completely innocent person is no small thing.

Administrative Advocate, Mr. Rob Collier is the President and Founder of California Drivers Advocates; a company devoted to representing drivers at license suspension hearings before the DMV.

 He said, “We often forget that a person diagnosed with Dementia is a victim.  They are a patient who has just been handed a sentence of misery, memory loss and fear.  Then, the abrupt intervention by the DMV to suspend or revoke their driving privilege is just another blow. Combining the shock of suddenly losing their driving privilege and then coming face to face with the impersonal treatment of the DMV can leave many of these folks feeling like criminals….. and of course, they’re not.  They haven’t done anything wrong but compassion is not in abundance when dealing with the DMV.”

Collier explained that although the DMV may learn of a driver’s diagnosis from a variety of sources, the most common source of information comes from physicians.  Health and Safety Code section 103900(a), makes it mandatory for doctors to report such events to the DMV. 

“This is a perfect example of our Government inserting itself into the relationship between doctors and patients and it creates an environment where doctors are more concerned about protecting their medical licenses than protecting their patients.”

“It is common for a driver to visit his family doctor to discuss simple issues of forgetfulness only to have the doctor report them to the DMV because they are concerned about being sued.”

Collier added, “Many doctors have the attitude that they must report virtually anything related to cognitive decline, thereby kicking the can down the road to the DMV.  In the meantime, the patient has just been kicked in the gut.”

      The DMV’s Approach to Dementia

California Law makes it mandatory that the DMV react quickly to any diagnosis of Dementia reported by a physician.  California Vehicle Code section 13953 mandates that the DMV conduct investigations to determine a person’s fitness to drive if some Physical or Mental Disorder has been diagnosed. 

In some cases, the DMV will permit the driver to maintain their driving privilege while an investigation is conducted to determine if the driver’s ability to drive is adversely affected by Dementia.  Known as a “Re-Examination,” this less intrusive action requires the driver to submit medical reports and to participate in an interview with a DMV Hearing Officer.  If the DMV is satisfied the driver possesses the fitness to drive, the matter is closed and the driver license remains intact.

In increasing numbers, however, the DMV is taking far more aggressive action.  In 76 percent of cases today, the DMV will order the immediate suspension of the person’s driving privilege based exclusively on the physician’s report of Dementia.  Essentially, this is the DMV deciding to “shoot first and ask questions later.”  While this immediate cessation of driving is arbitrary, the DMV argues that all drivers have the right to Procedural Due Process by requesting an Administrative Hearing to rebut the DMV’s Suspension.

This process is far more complicated than the Re-Examination in that an actual hearing is run much like a mini-trial.  Evidence is presented, witnesses may testify and legal arguments are waged.  In these more complicated proceedings, most drivers will find it impossible to represent themselves adequately and that increases their level of frustration and hopelessness.

Collier added, “The DMV is first and foremost focused on maintaining the security of our public roadways and few people would argue how important that is.  Many DMV employees feel, however, their job is best accomplished by blindly removing drivers from the road.  With that type mentality in place, drivers will find it difficult, if not impossible; to get information on how to properly present their case…..They end up fighting for the reinstatement of their driving privilege against a powerful government agency that is not at all user friendly.” 

Fortunately, California Law does permit a driver to be represented by an Administrative Advocate with expertise in preparing for and handling these suspension hearings.  If an accused driver’s Dementia is in the mild to moderate range, they may be able to regain their driving privilege through full-reinstatement or being placed on Medical Probation.

The Numbers Today

The struggle between protecting public roadways while protecting the rights of individual drivers is likely to heat up as the actual numbers of aging drivers increases.  In the five year period between 2010 and 2015, DMV records reveal there was an increase of 732,929 more drivers who are 65 years and older.  In that same period, the number of drivers who are 75 years and older increased by 108,037; and there are more than 17,000 more drivers who are 90 years old and older.

The reality is that as we age, our bodies tend to betray us.  We all will come to the point where the decision must be made to hang up our keys.  Until that day comes, however, all drivers have the right to fight the arbitrary suspension of their driving privilege if they have the fitness to drive. 

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