The Massachusetts Senate passed a driving safety bill today that would forbid text-messaging from behind the wheel and would impose new mental and physical fitness screening on older drivers who seek to renew their licenses.
Driver safety advocates have been debating both issues for years and today’s action represents the furthest either measure has gotten in the state Legislature. The House passed a similar bill last month. Both bills would also bar teenagers from using cellphones while driving.
But before Governor Deval Patrick can sign either bill into law, the two chambers have to resolve differences in their approaches.
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 today, with opponents citing research showing that hand-held devices offer no safety benefit. Those favoring a hands-free requirement said it would be a partway measure to at least minimize distractions.
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 at a doctor’s office -- for those 75 and older.
The House version would require older drivers to renew licenses in person every five years and pass a vision test in the process. Currently, drivers of all ages must renew licenses in person every 10 years, with some renewals allowed online.
Both debates have been fierce. Advocates for older drivers, including the AARP, have insisted that driving restrictions should not be age-based, while some brain specialists have cited research showing reflexes tend to slow significantly as drivers age. Opponents say the mental acuity tests favored by the Senate have not been defined or proved effective.
Legislators debated the measures for hours, with many telling personal stories about the discussions they have had with loved ones over when it is time to give up licenses.
“We are not trying to take driver's licenses away from our elderly drivers. We are simply trying to ensure that those who get behind a wheel do so safely,” said Senator Steven A. Baddour, co-chairman of the Legislature's Transportation Committee.
Senator Gale D. Candaras, a Democrat from Wilbraham, condemned the rules for older drivers as discriminatory, saying the law prohibits singling out people because of physical characteristics. "And that includes gray hair and wrinkles," she said.
Governor Deval Patrick has said he supports a bill with strong provisions on both major issues, but has not offered opinions on the specifics from either bill.
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