Thursday, March 11, 2010
Joyce's causes in driving bills

SHARON — A concern that was initially brought to State Sen. Brian Joyce’s attention by a constituent about five years ago is expected to soon be addressed in a new law.
Under the proposed safe driving bill, several pieces of legislation, including ones specific to elderly drivers, have been approved by both the Senate and the House. Because the house and senate did not agree on all of the same provisions, the bill is headed to a conference committee. Its final provisions will not be confirmed for a couple of weeks.
Joyce, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, has been pushing for safer driving regulations since he was approached years ago by a woman who was concerned about her elderly mother’s driving ability.
“She wanted to know why there was no testing required,” Joyce said.
The senator looked into the concern and was alarmed by what he found.
Under current law a person is tested at 16 and a half years old and never again, he said. Therefore, a 95 year old can renew his license by mail for 5 years as long as he passes a simple vision test. At age 100, the driver can once again renew by mail his license for another 10 years so long as he passes the basic vision test, he said.
“That is absurd – most people would agree that that is simply not good common sense,” Joyce said.
Additional research uncovered showed that after age 85, drivers are almost four times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than teenage drivers, Joyce said.
Citing the facts, Joyce said, he could not ignore the problem.
“I certainly do not want to offend anyone, but I do believe I have an obligation to do what I think is right,” Joyce said.
It was just three years ago that the state tightened teen driving laws and the result has been fewer teen driving deaths, he added.
“Now we have an opportunity to save the lives of senior drivers and we should seize the opportunity while still being sensitive to the needs of those who feel they will lose their independence,” Joyce said.
After listening to many concerns both from seniors and from the Registry regarding testing elderly drivers, Joyce said the initial proposal was tweaked.
The Registry was concerned that more testing would cost money and seniors were concerned that being screened at the registry would infringe on their privacy, he said.
Therefore, the bill calls for the registry and the medical advisory board to jointly develop an assessment form. The form needs to be completed by the driver’s physician or health care provided and submitted one time during the five year age period from 75 to 80. Based on that assessment, the registrar would determine if the person can safely operate the vehicle.
“It makes it a lot less threatening for seniors and doesn’t add any more cost for taxpayers,” Joyce said.
After the driver turns 80, the form needs to be filed every three years.
Joyce said he understands giving up a license is very difficult for many seniors. His father, a salesman who logged more than 40,000 miles in his car a year during his career, gave up his license last year when he was turning 89. His skills were diminishing and the family started to question whether he should continue to drive, Joyce said.
“It was only after my sister said what if you hurt your grandchild or another child that he made the decision” Joyce said.
The senator said he had long hoped that it wouldn’t take a tragedy to shed light on the importance of common sense safe driving legislation for seniors. But, in fact, it did and at least one of the tragedies was in his own district, Stoughton.
Last June, four year old Diya Patel was killed by an 88 year old Canton driver who struck the young child in a crosswalk on Washington Street in Stoughton. The driver, Ilse Horn, pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of negligent motor vehicle homicide and was sentenced to six years of probation, lost her driver’s license for 10 years, and was ordered to pay a $200 fine for a crosswalk violation.
“It was tragic on both sides,” Joyce said.
The bill that has been proposed also has provisions regarding cell phone usage, texting and civil liability of professionals who report a possibly unsafe driver.
“This bill addresses drivers of all ages who may be unsafe,” Joyce said.
House bill
The House passed a driving bill that would prohibit all drivers from using cell phones without hands-free devices and would require elderly drivers to take vision tests to retain their licenses every five years beginning at their 75th birthday.
The bill also bans texting while driving.
House lawmakers broaden the ban on usage of handheld cell phones by drivers to all Massachusetts motorists, instead of just junior operators, through an amendment to the bill. Violators would face a $100 fine for a first offense, a $250 fine for a second offense and a $500 fine for any subsequent offense, the same penalties for violations of the text messaging prohibition. The amendment expands a ban limited under the original bill before the House to drivers under age 18.
House lawmakers also adopted amendments to the bill adding psychologists to the list of healthcare professionals who can determine someone unfit to drive and leaving it up to insurance companies to decide whether to levy a surcharge on drivers who violate the law if the bill passes.
Lawmakers rejected amendments on primary seat belt enforcement and striking the provision that requires drivers 75 years and older to go in person to the RMV to renew license and have a vision test.
Under the bill passed, junior operators caught using a mobile phone will have their license suspended for seven days for the first offense and 30 days for the second offense.
Senate bill
Texting is a primary offense, which means someone can be pulled over specifically for the act of texting while driving. It also establishes a fine of up to $200, two years in jail, or both for anyone who causes an accident while texting and driving.
The bill also prohibits “junior operators,” those under the age of 18, from both texting and talking on a cell phone while driving; and operators of public transit – including the MBTA, school buses and ferries – are prohibited from any use of cell phones, except in the case of an emergency.
The bill requires a person between the ages of 75 and 80 to submit once during those five years an assessment form to be developed jointly by the registry and the medical advisory board, but filled out by the person’s physician or health care provider. Based on that assessment, the registrar would determine if the person can safely operate the vehicle.
After a person turns 80, the form would have to be filed every three years. Those who are denied their license can request a road test in an effort to demonstrate they have the skills necessary to keep their license and continue driving.
Additional provisions in the bill:
Protects from civil liability those police officers and healthcare providers who notify the RMV that a driver may not be able to safely operate a motor vehicle, and provides immunity from liability for a failure to report;
Requires drivers with three surcharged moving violations within two years to take a driver re-training course or have their license suspended indefinitely until completing the course. Current law is five incidents in three years; and
For separate instances of the RMV suspending or revoking the license of a driver 75 or older due to medically diagnosed mental or physical disabilities, the legislation expedites the appeals process for the driver, requiring that a hearing be held within 14 days of the suspension or revocation, and further requiring the registrar to consider all medical evidence and make a decision within seven days after the hearing.