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Lawmakers vow to ‘fast track’ elderly driver legislation

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By Matt Collette
Globe Correspondent / July 1, 2009
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Leading state lawmakers yesterday promised to “fast track’’ legislation regulating older drivers, as yet another serious accident involving an elderly motorist underscored growing concern about the safety of Massachusetts roads.

“Sooner rather than later, we will do this,’’ state Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat, and House chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, vowed at a State House hearing.

Relatives of fatal car crash victims implored legislators to act.

Early on in the hearing yesterday, state Senator Brian A. Joyce introduced Nihan Patel, whose 4-year-old niece, Diya Patel, died on June 14, a day after being struck by a car driven by an 86-year-old woman. The driver, Ilse Horn of Canton, was cited by Stoughton police for motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation; the Registry of Motor Vehicles suspended her license.

“I want people to do something about this, and I think all Massachusetts residents do,’’ Patel said. “I want you to look us in the eye and say ‘We should do this and we will do this.’ ’’

Joyce, who has twice before introduced legislation to impose greater scrutiny on elderly drivers, said he hoped such recent, highly publicized crashes would finally prompt the Legislature to act. His proposal calls for vision and road tests every five years for all drivers 85 and older.

“I said two years ago that I was afraid it would take a tragedy,’’ Joyce said after his testimony. “If that’s the impetus we needed then, by God, let’s go.’’

Yesterday, while the hearing was in session, a 78-year-old Woburn woman was sent to MGH with life-threatening injuries when an 83-year-old Malden man hit her Chrysler Sebring “nearly head-on’’ on Russell Street in Woburn, said Sergeant Robert Giannotti of the Woburn Police Department. The woman was in critical condition at Massachusetts General Hospital, Giannotti said.

Police said they will charge the driver, whom they would not identify, with negligent operation of a motor vehicle, and will also ask the Registry of Motor Vehicles to revoke his license. The Malden man and his wife were taken to the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, though Giannotti said he did not have any information on their conditions.

In addition to Joyce’s bill, the panel heard testimony on a bill supported by Safe Roads Now, a coalition of 15 groups, including local chapters of AAA, and the AARP, which calls for several changes in the licensing of all drivers, not just the oldest.

That bill urges instituting in-person driver license renewals throughout a driver’s lifespan; giving drivers a visual screening test similar to one used in California; and flagging motorists who have a certain number of accidents over a specified time period and requiring them to take an in-person exam.

Wagner and the Transportation Committee’s Senate chairman, Steven A. Baddour, said the final bill will probably be an amalgam of several proposals.

Several Massachusetts residents personally affected by car crashes involving elderly drivers asked the Legislature to act quickly. Peter R. Cadden, a Mattapoisett man whose 87-year-old mother, Helen, died after being struck by an elderly driver as she walked in a crosswalk two summers ago, said laws must change to protect the public from dangerous motorists.

“It’s disgraceful that you have taken so long to do anything,’’ he said at the hearing. “You’re playing Russian roulette crossing the street these days, and that’s sad.’’

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Matt Collette can be reached at mpcollette@globe.com.