Wrong-way driver with dementia still has license

Dash cam video from a 24 Hour News 8 photojournalist shows a wrong-way driver in US-131 in Allegan County. (Aug. 17, 2015)

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Six weeks after a man with dementia drove the wrong way on a major highway for nine miles, he still has a valid driver’s license.

When Target 8 talked to Ronald Heath in the days following the Aug. 17 incident, the 72-year-old said he had no memory of driving north in the southbound lanes of US-131 from Plainwell to Shelbyville.

When an Allegan County sheriff’s deputy questioned Heath on the side of the highway after the incident ended safely, Heath told them he was trying to get to a Kalamazoo store and had no idea he was halfway to Grand Rapids on the wrong side of the highway.

Target 8 wanted to find out how a man with dementia ends up behind the wheel and what happens to his driver’s license in the aftermath.

It’s been a month and a half since the incident, and Target 8’s check of Heath’s driving record shows his license is still valid and in good standing. In fact, the wrong-way incident is not reflected on his record, in part because deputies chose not to ticket him, instead driving him home and contacting family.

According to the incident report, the deputy also intended to file a form known as an OC-88, which is a request for the state to re-evaluate someone’s driving ability. Since such requests are medically related, the state cannot disclose whether it has received an OC-88 for a particular driver. In Heath’s case, the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office is likely still processing the request, which will appear on his record only after action is taken against his license.

Ron Heath.
(Ron Heath.)

Fred Woodhams, spokesperson for the Secretary of State, says the SOS depends on police, families and doctors to file OC-88s if there is evidence someone is unsafe to drive. If the targeted driver asks who made the request, Woodhams said, the state will not disclose that information.

>>Online: OC-88 (PDF)

Valid license or not, Heath’s family tells Target 8 the Kalamazoo man won’t be driving any more because they have taken away his vehicle for good.

Russ Heath, Ron Heath’s son, said the family had known that the time to take the keys was nearing.

“Oh yeah, yeah, you could see it coming,” Russ Heath said. “You could definitely see it coming. You just didn’t know when to say when.”

But Heath’s record showed potential red flags before the wrong-way incident. Russ Heath says he did not know about a careless driving ticket his dad received in early summer.

“Family is kind of tight-lipped,” Russ Heath explained. “They don’t want to throw him, you know, under the bus yet type of thing. A pretty typical family thing, I imagine. Everybody doesn’t want to admit… that there could be a problem.”

The state’s Senior Mobility Work Group hopes families will use a relatively new resource called Michigan’s Guide for Aging Drivers and Their Families to help determine when and how to take away a driver’s keys. The booklet includes resources and detailed information like warning signs that drivers are becoming unsafe and expert advice on how to communicate your concerns to the loved one in question.

>>Online: Michigan’s Guide for Aging Drivers and Their Families (PDF)

The careless driving ticket in July and the wrong-way incident in August weren’t Ron Heath’s only offenses. He was also cited for improper lane use in August 2014 when he crossed the centerline on M-60 and hit a semi-truck.

In Michigan, some offenses trigger automatic re-evaluations of a driver’s fitness for the road, including a fatal crash, multiple accidents in a short time period or 12 points on a license. But Ron Heath’s record, including the third offense — the wrong-way driving incident — would not trigger such a re-examination.

Instead, the OC-88 filed by an Allegan County sheriff’s deputy will likely prompt the state to re-examine Heath’s ability to drive safely.

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