Will new ‘save driver’ rules make our roads safer?


By Al Norman

Last July, I wrote about a new state law that was supposed to help get unsafe drivers off the road. But will it work?

Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law Chapter 155 of the Acts of 2010, under which, 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 of Motor Vehicles (RMV) 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 RMV if your physical or medical condition leaves “reasonable cause to believe” that you can’t operate a motor vehicle.

But here’s the flaw: a doctor, a nurse or a policeman is not required to make a report. Even though the law protects health care providers 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 also protects them from a lawsuit for not filing. A person who is allowed to report, and who strongly believes a person should not be behind the wheel, can choose to do nothing. It’s hard to see how that helps keep our roads any safer.

On Nov. 9, the Department of Public Health issued proposed new regulations for Chapter 155 to give health and law enforcement officials their first look at standard definitions. “Cognitive impairment” is defined as “any condition that impairs … attention, alertness, perception, comprehension, judgment, memory or reasoning that may influence the physical action, reaction time or other responses to understand and interact with the environment.” A “functional impairment” is “any symptom of a disease or medical condition that results in full or partial decrease in any or several sensory or motor functions,” which includes “peripheral sensation of the extremities, strength, flexibility, motor planning and coordination.”

Any cognitive or functional impairment that limits a person’s attention, or the ability to understand “the immediate driver context,” or to make appropriate decisions while driving, or “visuospatial processing,” or impairs their “strength, flexibility, reflexes, sensory perception and physical coordination,” is considered a “driving relevant” impairment. The impairment must be one that cannot be “sufficiently corrected or controlled” by medication, therapy, surgery or by some adaptive equipment or driving device

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 their 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.