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Vision tests proposed for drivers over 75

Bill would ban texting at wheel

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / February 3, 2010

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Key lawmakers, facing public concern over a raft of highly publicized accidents involving older drivers, yesterday proposed requiring vision tests for drivers over 75 years old seeking to renew their licenses, and granting legal immunity to doctors who report that their patients are not competent to drive.

The bill would also ban text messaging while driving, the other major road issue that safety advocates have moved to the top of their agenda in the past year. The texting ban, echoing language recommended by a legislative committee last week, also forbids all drivers under age 18 from using cellphones while behind the wheel.

The proposed rules for the elderly fall far short of calls made last year to require mental fitness or road tests for older drivers. And some critics suggested the measure would not significantly change the current law regarding elderly drivers.

“Regardless of whatever we do in the Legislature, for some people we never go far enough,’’ said Representative Charles A. Murphy, a Burlington Democrat who is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which authored the latest bill with support from Speaker Robert A. DeLeo. “The steps we’re taking are reasonable and will result in safer roads in the Commonwealth.’’

The legislation is scheduled for a vote tomorrow in the House.

Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat who has long advocated testing older drivers, said he is glad the House is moving on the issue. But he said he hopes, if the measure reaches the Senate, to toughen the requirements for older drivers. Joyce said the proposed bill does not adequately address the decline in cognitive skills some experience.

“A 100-year-old person who’s still able to tell the difference between red, green, and yellow is still good to go for another five years,’’ he said.

The daughter of school crossing guard Marie Conley, who was hit and killed by an 86-year-old driver in October 2008, said she supports testing of elderly drivers, but believes it will take time to get meaningful changes in the law.

“I guess every little bit does help,’’ said Jennifer Russo, of Weymouth.

“I don’t want my mother to be forgotten about,’’ she said. “Maybe it will take baby steps. At least something is starting to be done.’’

The driving issue has long been contentious, with such powerful groups as AARP and the American Automobile Association opposing any testing that singles out the elderly. Last year the Legislature considered, but never voted on, a measure that would have imposed undefined mental and physical fitness tests for drivers over 75.

The measure unveiled yesterday would require drivers over 75 who seek license renewals to do so in person, because some research suggests such a requirement can deter some incompetent drivers from seeking the renewal. At the Registry of Motor Vehicles, all license renewal applicants have to either take a vision test or present a vision screening certificate.

The requirement for in-person license renewal would not be a significant departure from current rules, which require all drivers to renew their licenses every 5 years, but only require drivers to renew their licenses in person every 10 years. In between, drivers can renew their licenses online.

However, most older drivers already choose to renew their licenses in person at Registry branches rather than by computer, according to Ann Dufresne, spokeswoman for the Registry.

Elizabeth Dugan, a University of Massachusetts Boston gerontologist who opposes age-based testing, argues that the in-person requirement is a positive step because past studies have shown it works as a deterrent.

“If people are too medically impaired to get to the RMV to get their licenses, they’re too impaired to drive,’’ she said.

Dugan said the bill would also improve safety because it forces the state to spell out standards for health care professionals who recognize that their patients should not be driving. The Registry already gets some reports from doctors, law enforcement officials, and family members, prompting additional testing for some drivers. But many physicians are uncertain when and how to make such reports, Dugan said.

“That’s been a bit murky,’’ she said. “What this will do is give it some momentum.’’

But the new bill does not require health care professionals to report patients, and says they would be immune from lawsuits in cases in which they decline to report incompetent drivers.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.