Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Senate OK's Tests for Older Drivers

The state Senate yesterday passed a driving-safety bill that would forbid text-messaging behind the wheel and impose new mental and physical fitness screening on older drivers who seek to renew their licenses.
Driver-safety advocates have been pushing for action on both fronts for years, and yesterday’s vote represents the furthest either issue has gotten in the state Legislature. The House passed a similar bill last month and, despite some key differences in the two plans, leaders from both chambers expect to send a bill to Governor Deval Patrick soon.
The Senate bill, like one that passed the House last month, would also bar teenagers from using cellphones while driving, either for phone calls or texting.
Senate President Therese Murray said approvingly that the new restrictions would affect a broad swath of the driving public: “junior operators, seniors, and everyone in between.’’
Because of that, yesterday’s four hours of debate leading up to a voice vote took an especially personal tone, with many senators telling stories about distracted drivers they had encountered on state highways and difficult conversations they had had with aging parents about when to give up their licenses.
State Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat, recalled persuading his 90-year-old father, a retired salesman who loved his 1962 Dodge Country Squire station wagon, that it was finally time to give up his license.
“It is a difficult matter indeed,’’ Joyce said.
A spokesman for Patrick, Juan Martinez, said in a statement last night that both the Senate and the House bills “have strong elements and he looks forward to reviewing the final bill when it reaches his desk.’’
Before Patrick can sign a bill into law, however, lawmakers have to resolve two fundamental differences.
The House bill, in addition to banning text-messaging, would also forbid drivers from using a hand-held cellphone while driving, though hands-free devices would still be legal. The Senate rejected that approach narrowly, choosing instead to only ban, for adults, texting behind the wheel, not talking on a phone.
On the other hand, the Senate bill goes much further in regulating older drivers. It would require a still-undefined mental and physical acuity screening - conducted by a physician - for those 75 years and older. Under the bill, an assessment would be developed jointly by the Registry of Motor Vehicles and its medical advisory board. Drivers between ages 75 and 80 would be subject to it once, and then every three years after that.
The House version would simply require older drivers to renew licenses in person every five years and pass a vision test in the process. Currently, drivers of all ages need only renew licenses in person every 10 years, with renewals allowed online in between. Both bills would extend the legal protections for medical professionals who report drivers to the Registry whom they believe are incompetent.
Advocates for older drivers, including the AARP, have argued that driving restrictions should not be age-based, and that mental acuity tests favored by the Senate have not been defined or proven effective.
State Senator Gale D. Candaras, a Democrat from Wilbraham, condemned the plan as discriminatory, saying that state law prohibits singling out people because of physical characteristics. “And that includes gray hair and wrinkles,’’ she said.
“The plan will turn active seniors into shut-ins,’’ she said.
But proponents of screening point to research from brain specialists indicating many people begin to lose sharpness as they age, and that the very old are far more prone to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Joyce said that current laws ignore the science of aging and that statistics show older drivers are significantly more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than other age groups.
“A person could be 110 and have lost their cognitive ability, lost their physical ability,’’ he said. “But under current law, if they can tell the difference between red, green, and yellow, they are able to drive. That is preposterous.’’
Though the text-messaging ban is less contentious than the plan to regulate older drivers, it promises to affect the largest group of drivers. Safety specialists have been increasingly worried about the prevalence and dangers of texting while driving. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have passed bans, and legislators in most other states are considering them.
The Senate plan originally would have enforced the ban as a secondary offense, meaning police would be able to cite only the drivers first caught violating another traffic rule. But after extensive debate, senators voted, 24 to 10, yesterday to give police authority under all circumstances to pull over drivers suspected of texting, something safety advocates said is key to giving teeth to the law.
Under both plans, violators face fines of $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second, and $500 after that.
Noah Bierman can be reached at [email protected]