Sunday, June 27, 2010
"Safe Driving" measure has few conditions for senior motorists

On the same day that state lawmakers were celebrating their agreement over the “Safe Driving Act’’ last week, an 89-year-old woman in Chelmsford struck a 72-year-old pedestrian while pulling out of a parking lot on Fletcher Street, sending the victim onto the hood of her vehicle, then onto the pavement.
The pedestrian was not seriously injured. But the accident on Tuesday was noted by state Senator Brian A. Joyce, the Milton Democrat who tracks the older drivers issue and whose office has requested records of nonfatal accidents that would not ordinarily make the news.
Massachusetts is one of 23 states that have no extra requirements for senior drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and Joyce has filed multiple bills to require road tests or other measures to check the abilities of the state’s oldest drivers. The idea appeared to gain steam after a series of accidents last year in which senior citizens struck and killed pedestrians.
The bill the Senate passed stopped short of road tests for seniors but called for people over 75 to receive written endorsement from their doctor of their mental and physical acuity before renewing their licenses.
The House version had lower requirements for seniors, with the only stipulation being that people over 75 could no longer renew their licenses from home.
Both bills sought to encourage doctors and police officers to notify the state about people who should not be driving by shielding them from related lawsuits.
The final agreement that emerged last week from conference committee and headed for the governor’s desk Friday resembled the House bill on seniors, and the Senate bill on cellphones (a full ban for those under 18 and a texting ban for all, but no ban on handheld calls by adults).
The AARP objected to even the 75-and-over renewal measure as discriminatory on the basis of age. But Joyce and others who wanted more checks on older drivers thought it fell short.
“I was disappointed, candidly,’’ said Joyce, who says he is attuned to concerns about the independence of seniors, and who has spoken about persuading his 90-year-old father, a retired salesman who loved his 1962 Dodge station wagon, to give up his license. “We’re not hesitant to address junior operators who don’t vote, but there continues to be extraordinary reluctance to deal with very real issues impacting senior drivers who in disproportionate numbers do vote.’’
Conference committee negotiators promoting their agreement for mandatory vision tests at 75 likened it to a similar requirement in the Granite State.
“If it’s good enough for New Hampshire, it should be good enough for here,’’ said Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who represents a border district and serves as chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation.
New Hampshire defines senior drivers at age 75 and requires them to come in every five years. In addition to vision checks, the state requires them to take road tests.
Studies have not proven that road tests — beyond requiring in-person renewals — for older drivers yield fewer crashes, according to researchers. But the Insurance Institute released a report Tuesday that found the fatal crash rate among drivers 70 and over nationwide plunged 37 percent between 1997 and 2008, a faster rate than for middle-age drivers. The reasons for the decline were unclear, but the findings offered something for both sides. Some saw it as evidence that seniors are doing a better job of self-regulating. Others attributed it to new requirements in other states.
Joyce saw both. While age can diminish the physical and mental abilities that are necessary for safe driving, not all are affected at the same age, he said. But better screening might remove the minority of unworthy drivers and prevent some future accidents. “I think we missed an opportunity to do more,’’ Joyce said.