House Approves Bill Mandating Regular Vision Tests For Senior Drivers
By: Michael C. Bailey
A bill approved last week in the House began as an effort to re-test elderly drivers, and wound up as a more comprehensive driver safety bill that also targets motorists of all ages who use their cell phones in their cars.
In a 146 to nine vote, the House approved and sent to the Senate a bill that would require all drivers age 75 or older to take and pass an eye test as a condition of renewing their driver’s license every five years. Current state law requires all drivers to take a vision test every 10 years.
State Representatives Demetrius J. Atsalis (D – Barnstable), Susan D. William Gifford (R – Wareham), Timothy R. Madden (D – Nantucket), and Matthew C. Patrick (D – Falmouth) voted in favor of the bill.
The bill passed last week is a more lenient proposal than the one presented last year following a series of serious, and in some cases fatal motor vehicle accidents caused by elderly drivers. The original bill, filed by State Senator Brian A. Joyce (D – Milton), called for residents over the age of 85 to take a full road test whenever they renewed their driver’s license.
State Representative Jeffrey D. Perry (R – Sandwich), the only member of the Cape delegation to vote against the measure, said “there was no appetite to support Senator Joyce’s original proposal,” noting that the original wave of support “boiled up because of all the media accounts” of accidents involving seniors, but once the coverage subsided, so did support for re-testing.
Both Rep. Atsalis and Rep. Perry believed that some lawmakers backed away from full re-testing to mollify their elderly constituents – typically the most active and dedicated voting block. “That’s not being cynical, that’s being realistic,” Rep. Atsalis said.
An amendment requires doctors to report a potentially dangerous elderly driver to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. That same amendment grants doctors immunity from lawsuits for reporting or failing to report a potentially dangerous driver.
Doctors may now voluntarily report potentially dangerous drivers to the RMV, and last year more than 3,300 licenses were revoked because of a doctor’s report.
Rep. Madden said his constituents were less opposed to mandatory re-testing if it applied to all drivers. “I talked to many seniors in my district, and their feeling was if someone shouldn’t be on the road, they shouldn’t be on the road, regardless of their age,” he said.
While serious crashes involving senior citizens dominated the news last year, teenage drivers are still the highest-risk drivers of any age group.
According to Donna K. Erdman, an occupational therapist with Rehabilitation Hospitals of the Cape and Islands (RHCI) who conducts driver assessments for elderly motorists, drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 experience 176 accidents per 1,000 drivers (as per annual national averages). In comparison, drivers between the ages of 65 and 85 experience on average 37 crashes per 1,000 drivers.
The bill approved last week also cracked down on younger driver by banning all drivers under the age of 18 from using a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle. Drivers over the age of 18 may only use a cell phone while driving if using a hands-free device. All drivers, regardless of age, would be banned from texting while driving.
The language banning cell phone use for teens and restricting use for adults, introduced via an amendment, passed in a 92 to 66 vote, with the Upper Cape’s three Democratic members voting for that amendment.
Rep. Madden said he “certainly get people who feel it’s an infringement” to restrict their cell phone use in the car, but though the hands-free device option balanced safety with personal freedoms. Rep. Madden himself uses a hands-free device in his car. “Holding a phone while driving just adds to the distractions,” he said.
An adult driver caught violating the law would face a $100 fine for a first offense and a maximum fine of $500 for a third or subsequent offense. A teen driver caught using a cell phone would have their license suspended. Insurance companies would have the option of adding a surcharge for a violation.
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