Sunday, June 27, 2010
Road-age crisis rages
Elder driver law fails to tackle safety issue

On Tuesday, as Beacon Hill congratulated itself on legislation supposed to combat the epidemic of elderly driver accidents, an 89-year-old from Chelmsford, trying to exit a parking lot, instead plowed into a 72-year-old pedestrian who wound up draped across her hood, police said. When the driver finally realized what happened, she hit the brake and the pedestrian slid to the ground.
The day before in West Dennis, an 82-year-old stopped in the middle of Route 28, a major highway. The car behind her swerved, then careened onto the sidewalk. The 82-year-old “was extremely upset and appeared somewhat disoriented and was very emotional talking about her deceased husband and another (motor vehicle accident) she was involved in,” read the police report. When was that earlier accident? Just a week earlier.
Two days before that, a speeding 77-year-old drove right up onto the sidewalk in Boston, hitting a pedestrian, a car, a building and a tree, according to cops. The same day a 78-year-old driving at 5 mph down Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington repeatedly stopped and at one point did a U-turn, police said.
The above is just a few days’ samples of impaired older drivers’ wild rides around here, courtesy of the Registry of Motor Vehicles via state Sen. Brian A. Joyce, a longtime champion of tougher elderly driving laws.
Last week Beacon Hill, after a string of deaths caused by such confused old people, could have passed legislation demanding some sort of testing for drivers aged 75, 80 or 85 - when nearly half of all people suffer from dementia. Lawmakers could have at least required doctors - granted immunity - to sign off on patients no longer able to drive. Instead? They did, basically, nothing.
“We started with a full loaf. We could’ve gotten half a loaf. We ended up with a slice,” said Joyce.
I’d call it a crumb.
The proposed law, now headed to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk, merely requires drivers older than 75 to take vision tests every five years instead of every 10 years.
Only one of the above drivers had vision problems, by the way. And only a couple of old people in a two-inch stack of recent RMV accident reports had vision problems. The common denominators? Confusion, disorientation, cars covered in dents from previous fender-benders - and a complete inability to understand their diminished capacity.
Jane Berghold, who died last May, was a typical older driver. “I never had a problem. I’d always been very cautious,” said the then-78-year-old in an interview insisting she’d been competent even when she drove her Oldsmobile Delta C88 right through the entrance of Brockton Hospital, killing Dr. Mark Vasa, 58, and secretary Susan Plante, 59. The car malfunctioned, she said.
Patrick said Friday he is considering whether to sign this bill. Both Patrick and Charlie Baker, a Republican running for governor, say they favor some type of road testing for the elderly. Tim Cahill, an independent running for governor, said yesterday he does not. “I don’t want to take away licenses from able-bodied people or force them to go through a driver’s test,” he said. What the Legislature did, he said, is “fine.”
But with due respect, it’s not fine. It’s scary. Very.