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Senate takes aim at driving distracted

Bill would ban text messaging; elderly would face cognitive testing

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / February 26, 2010

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Text messaging while driving would be banned, teenagers would be barred from using cellphones behind the wheel, and elderly drivers would have to pass cognitive and physical tests to renew their licenses under a proposal unveiled yesterday in the state Senate.

The bill, which is set for a Senate vote Tuesday, parallels in many respects a safe driving bill passed overwhelmingly in the House earlier this month. But there are a few major differences. And if the current Senate proposal passes, lawmakers would have to reconcile the two versions before sending a bill to Governor Deval Patrick.

Under the Senate bill, drivers 75 or older would have to pass a test developed by the registrar of motor vehicles that would assess “cognitive and physical abilities and any other condition that shall prevent applicant from operating a motor vehicle in a safe manner.’’ Elderly drivers would have to be tested every three years, with a charge of no more than $30 for each renewal.

The House proposal on older drivers did not go as far, requiring those 75 or older to renew their licenses in person every five years and to take a vision exam when they do so.

The Senate bill has a more limited take on the use of cellphones while driving. While the House version would prohibit drivers from using cellphones without a hands-free device, the Senate version bans only text messaging; it does not include any restrictions on adults talking on a cellphone while driving.

Under both plans, violators would face a $100 fine for the first offense, a $250 fine for the second, and a $500 fine for subsequent offenses.

“We have a whole new generation of drivers who think they can text and drive and do both safely,’’ said state Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat and the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation. “And you just can’t.’’

He then pulled out his cellphone and displayed a photo of a woman trying to smoke a cigarette, talk on her phone, and look at a GPS device while behind the wheel. (Baddour, who took the photo with his own cellphone, said they were at a stoplight; the Senate bill puts no prohibition on taking pictures.)

But safe-driving advocates criticized the Senate legislation for what they consider a major flaw: Police officers would be able to fine a driver for texting only if the driver had first committed another driving offense.

“It basically makes it a useless bill,’’ said Jeff Larson, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, a nonprofit group that has been lobbying for stronger laws against distracted driving. “It sends a message that it’s not that important. It tells all drivers: ‘You know what? Go ahead and do it. We can’t stop you.’ ’’

The provisions that would affect the elderly are meant to respond to a recent spate of high-profile accidents involving elderly drivers.

Several advocates for seniors decried both bills as discriminatory, though many in the scientific community have pointed to research showing that older drivers are far more likely than younger drivers to lose cognitive ability.

“Legislation that imposes tests that don’t exist will do nothing to make the roads safer,’’ said Deborah Banda, state director of AARP Massachusetts. “There isn’t a reliable, validated cognitive test available to be used for screening purposes.’’

Al Norman, executive director of the group Mass Home Care, called the bill “a form of age discrimination.’’

The Senate bill would also require drivers with three offenses during a two-year period to take a driving course or possibly have their license suspended. Current law provides such penalties after five incidents in a three-year period.

The Senate legislation was given a favorable recommendation yesterday by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which routinely reviews bills before referring them to the full body. House lawmakers, by a 146-to-9 vote, approved their legislation earlier this month.

“I’m pleased that the Senate is taking the bill up at this point in time,’’ said Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat and the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation. “It moves the Legislature one step closer to placing the bill before the governor.’’

Wagner declined to comment on the differences between the House and Senate bills, saying he wanted to wait and see what bill the Senate approves. He did say that the offenses should be subject to primary enforcement, which would give police the ability to cite drivers solely for texting behind the wheel.

Patrick has said that he wanted legislation to go further than the House proposal, but gave no indications yesterday of whether the Senate proposal accomplishes that.

“While we have not had an opportunity to review the Senate’s proposal, we look forward to a final bill reaching the governor’s desk that includes strong measures to keep all drivers safe and help prevent tragedies from occurring on our roadways,’’ a Patrick administration spokeswoman, Kim Haberlin, said in a statement.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.