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For safer roads // TEST THE ELDERLY

Florida's Legislature was more concerned about politics than safety when it approved a law that allows many motorists to go 18 years between driver's license exams. The law, approved in 1995, will make the state's roads and highways more dangerous. All ages benefit when government sets reasonable standards for the privilege of driving.

Thanks to the legislation, motorists with good driving records can renew their licenses by mail. Licenses for safe drivers _ those without tickets _ are valid for six years and can be renewed for two consecutive terms. That means a large portion of Florida's 12-million drivers can go without inspection for 18 years.

The law makes renewals convenient and cheap. It also creates a dangerous loophole for drivers who have escaped mishap or injury, yet who deserve closer attention nonetheless.

Florida has more than 2-million senior drivers; 40,000 are over the age of 90. Older drivers whose vision or mental acuity has deteriorated can pose as serious a danger as inexperienced teens barreling down the road. That's why some 20 states have adopted special licensing rules that take age into account.

Advocates for the elderly have succeeded in beating back several proposals to tighten restrictions in recent years. Their efforts show that seniors have extraordinary political clout.

But the overriding issue should be safety. Increased highway speeds and congested roads threaten elderly and young drivers alike. Every motorist should be expected to undergo periodic vision, hearing and driving-skills tests, and it is reasonable that elderly drivers should be required to undergo such tests on a more frequent basis once they reach a certain age. Seniors capable of driving responsibly should be allowed to remain on the road, no matter how old they may be. However, drivers, whether they are 19 or 91, should lose their licenses if they lack the skills and judgment needed to navigate Florida's dangerous roads.

The simplified license renewal legislation was intended to save the state a few dollars, but the idea is shortsighted. Adequate testing can save money as well as lives. The Legislature should adequately fund an expanded testing program so the state division of driver licenses will not be unduly burdened.

Steps to tighten the rules should be moderate and deliberative. To seniors, the issue is understandably delicate. The Legislature, however, has a responsibility to assure the safety of residents of all ages.