How good is the new ‘Safe Driver’ law?

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By Al Norman

You know that worn joke that goes: “I love older people — except when they’re ahead of me in traffic.”

The state legislature finally broke through the traffic jam on a “safe driver bill,” and on July 2, Gov. Deval Patrick signed it into law as Chapter 155 of the Acts of 2010.

Only one state lawmaker voted against it.

Under Chapter 155, if you are 75 years of age or older and applying for a renewal of a license, you will have to show up in person at a registry office, where you will be given a vision test. As an option, you can produce a “vision screening certificate,” signed by an optometrist or ophthalmologist to show that you meet minimum visual standards for a driver’s license.

Under the new law, you can also lose your license if you are not “physically or medically capable of safely operating” a car, or have a “cognitive or functional impairment” that will affect your ability to drive a car. Chapter 155 leaves it to “health care providers” to report to the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) if your physical or medical condition leaves “reasonable cause to believe” that you can’t operate a motor vehicle.

But here’s the problem: a doctor, a nurse, or a policeman is not mandated to make a report. Even though the law allows health care providers to be immune from a lawsuit if they file a report in good faith — the fact that they don’t have to file a report means they can just look the other way.

In fact, the law protects them for not filing: “A health care provider or law enforcement officer who does not report shall be immune from civil liability that might otherwise result from not making the report.” They may strongly believe a person should not be behind the wheel, but not say anything to anyone.

If they do file a report, it cannot be made “solely on the basis of age.” But that doesn’t mean age can’t be written up as a major factor. In effect, older drivers are being profiled in the same way that Latinos in Arizona are being profiled as potentially undocumented citizens. Reports are not supposed to be based “solely on the diagnosis of a medical condition or cognitive or functional impairment,” but it must be predicated on “observations or evidence of the actual affect of that condition or impairment on the operator’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.”

Once a report is filed, the RMV is responsible for doing a “medical evaluation” of the driver. The RMV has 30 days to “conduct a review to determine the operator’s capacity for continued licensure to operate a motor vehicle.” Because there are no current standards for judging “capacity to operate,” the new laws says the commissioner of public health and the RMV will consult with medical experts on cognitive or functional impairments, to come up with regulations “designating the cognitive or functional impairments that are likely to affect a person’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.”

Several days after signing the legislation, Gov. Patrick said the law as signed was the best he could get. “It’s not nothing. It’s not even a baby step. It’s a big step.” The governor said he supports cognitive testing for senior citizens, and it may be resurrected. The governor apparently suggested that a person can have cognitive problems — but if they do not affect their ability to operate a motor vehicle — such problems are not enough to cause a driver to lose his license.

The RMV has no medical evaluation process yet. If a report is filed, the evaluation done by the Registry will include cognitive and medical functioning. This is all new territory for the RMV, and many problems may arise as they put together the medical evaluation regulations.

Drivers of any age who are incapable of operating a vehicle should be off the road. The law is right to insist that whatever your impairments are, if they don’t affect your ability to drive a car, they are not relevant to the RMV. This safe driver law should have mandated safety reports by doctors, because when the rubber hits the road, this law is only as good as the reports that get made, and only as helpful as the evaluations that follow.

And any senior who loses his or her license should be automatically eligible for public transportation — a detail state lawmakers refused to consider.

Al Norman is the Executive Director of Mass Home Care. He can be reached at 413-773-5555 x 2295, and at info@masshomecare.org.