Two weeks ago, a four-year-old girl was killed by an 88-year-old driver in Stoughton. Just this weekend, a Medford pedestrian was hit by an 86-year-old driver in Melrose. What can we do to prevent such tragedies?
One widely-discussed proposal by Sen. Joyce would require vision and road testing of individuals who renew their licenses after age 85.
This bill reasonably recognizes that we lose some abilities as we age and that we need ways to protect everyone from those who should no longer be driving. I believe that more frequent in-person vision testing, at a younger age, along with other safeguards, would better protect public safety at lower cost.
Massachusetts currently requires in-person license renewal with vision testing every ten years and five-year renewals that can be done on-line. Under the proposal, a driver might renew his license at 74, but then have a stroke at 75. He could renew his license twice after that, once in person and once on-line, and not be road tested until he was 89.
Road tests are expensive and might be not always be necessary. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that requiring in-person registration alone – even without any test – reduces fatalities as much as road testing. Perhaps the requirement of having to appear before a Registry official makes people with vision or other difficulties truly confront the issue of their impairment.
We can learn from research, and from other states’ experience, which solutions would be the most effective, efficient, and realistic for Massachusetts. A comprehensive bill might include some or all of these components:
– requiring in-person renewals with vision tests every two years for those over age 75. Rhode Island does this.
– requiring a doctor’s signature on a checklist of dangerous conditions for all renewals over 75. This would make the driver have a conversation with the doctor, not leaving it to the doctor’s initiative. Nevada has this system for mail renewals.
– establishing tiered testing for all drivers over 75 similar to that in California. Anyone who fails vision or mental acuity tests on renewal, or shows other signs of diminished capacity, must take a road test.
– requiring doctors certifying drivers for handicapped permits to state whether the person’s condition might make it dangerous for them to drive
– allowing the Registry to issue restricted licenses; for example, allowing the person to drive only during daylight hours or on certain streets.
– improving public transportation and other methods of mobility (like SCM in Somerville and Medford) for disabled people. Elders will be (a little) less reluctant to give up the keys, and families will be less reluctant to take them away, if they can retain some independence
– protecting doctors from liability if they report to the Registry of Motor Vehicles a change in their patient’s condition that makes it dangerous to drive. Rep. Khan’s bill, favorably reported out of the Public Safety committee includes this (some states actually mandate doctors to report such conditions) Recognizing that changes can occur suddenly and at any age is an important part of any solution. However, we know that doctors and patients don’t always have the time or desire to have the necessary discussions.
As Senate chair of the Elder Affairs Committee, I am working with my colleagues and organizations with expertise in driving and aging to make sure that we quickly pass a bill that is realistic, effective, and cost effective. We cannot wait for yet another tragedy.
If readers have suggestions for us to consider or wish to obtain more information or materials, please contact my office at 617-722-1578.
In the meantime, there are many online resources for people who are concerned about their own driving or that of a relative or neighbor:
Senator Patricia Jehlen is a Democratic State Senator representing Medford, Somerville, Winchester, and Woburn.