8:44 PM PDT, October 30, 2012
Have you heard the one about the blind man who walked into the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Santa Monica, took an eye test and left with a new driver's license?
OK, that's not 100% accurate. He didn't walk out with his new license; it arrived in the mail two weeks later.
The man, 72-year-old Mark Overland of Pacific Palisades, is legally blind, with 94% of his vision gone. When Overland first told me about his adventure, he said he didn't want anyone at the DMV to lose a job over this. But he felt like it was worth speaking up.
"I have concluded that changes need to be made in the DMV vision testing process," he said with graceful understatement.
Overland is a lawyer, and his concern about elderly and impaired drivers has a history to it. He was the defense attorney for George Russell Weller, the 86-year-old man who plowed through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market in 2003, leaving 10 people dead and 68 injured. Russell, who was convicted of vehicular manslaughter but didn't serve time because of failing health, said he had accidentally hit the gas instead of the brakes.
Handling the case made Overland give some thought to whether there should be stricter screening of drivers with health- or age-related problems.
"I see people getting into cars who have no business driving," Overland said. He gave the example of an elderly gent he saw inching along with a walker at the Bel-Air Bay Club. "He got into a big Buick and drove away."
Sometimes age has nothing to do with it. Reckless drivers can be young, old and in between.
But my Dad was one of those guys who could barely walk and still insisted on driving. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, he claimed he was a better driver than 90% of the other people out there. I understood that he wanted to hold on to a degree of independence as his limitations mounted, but we were saved from having to pry the keys out of his hands only by his becoming so ill that driving was no longer a consideration.
Overland gave up driving 15 years ago because of his deteriorating vision. But he kept renewing his license by mail for the sake of having a valid ID. Five years ago, when he got a license renewal form, he noticed a portion that asked if he had any visual impairment that would affect his driving.
"I checked off 'yes.'"
The next line asked what that might be, and Overland wrote "retinitis pigmentosa." That's a progressive condition in which peripheral vision is lost. Overland has a narrow tunnel of vision, and can see pretty well within that field. But anything to the right or left, up or down, is lost to him. He was more than a little surprised then to get his license in the mail a couple of weeks later.
When Overland got his latest renewal notice a month ago, it instructed him to go to a DMV office for a written test and eye exam. He was curious to see what would happen if he didn't mention his disability, so he went to the DMV on Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica, with his daughter Courtney doing the driving. Overland thought briefly about entering the office with his white cane, but decided against it, and Courtney instead served as his guide.
Overland was called to the counter by a clerk and told to read the eye chart on the back wall.
"I'm looking around, and I can't find it because it's not in my line of vision," Overland said.
He located it quickly enough and was able to read most of the letters, but not all of them. The clerk then had him peer into a machine for another eye test. Overland began to read, but Courtney watched the clerk scrunch his face and ask her Dad:
"Sir, what are you reading?"
Overland was looking at something other than the eye chart, which he hadn't yet located. Redirecting his line of vision, he found the chart and did well enough to pass. He later aced the written test, left the building at his daughter's side, and his new license arrived in the mail two weeks later.
When I checked with the DMV, I found that anyone with retinitis pigmentosa is required to take a driving test, and if you fail, your license is revoked. DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez couldn't say why Overland wasn't ordered to take a test five years ago, when he wrote his condition on his renewal form.
She did say that in 2011, nearly 41,000 people were required to prove their ability to drive after concerns about their driving were reported by police, doctors, friends, neighbors or loved ones. The reasons cited included dementia, physical disabilities, vision loss, impairment due to alcohol or drugs, and just plain lousy driving. In the end, 38,256 of those reported last year had their licenses suspended or revoked.
Now that he's told his story, Mark Overland may be the next Californian to lose his license, but if his candor prevents an accident, he won't mind. If you know someone who may be an unsafe driver, you can anonymously make a request for a re-examination that is handled in confidence. The DMV may ask the driver for medical records, check with a doctor or require a driving test.
For more information, go to http://www.dmv.ca.gov and write "unsafe driver" in the search field.
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