The Observer

Age-based road tests make sense

Elderly may cry discrimination, but reflexes and vision inarguably diminish over time

By Sam Allis
Globe Columnist / November 22, 2009

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There has been much sturm und drang up at the State House around mandatory tests for elderly drivers. But then there is always much sturm und drang around any legislation that affects the elderly. The ancient adage - never legislate anything to do with children or pets - was amended long ago to include the elderly, who have a hair trigger about anything perceived as a threat to their interests.

The immutable truth is that our reflexes and vision suffer with age. The question is how best to measure the decline among elderly drivers. Interest groups have been up in arms over any attempt to mandate age-based road tests, an eminently sensible idea. State Senator Brian Joyce has filed legislation three times in the last five years requiring drivers 85 and older to take road tests. All three have been throttled in their cribs.

We now have a legislative rodeo up there concerning elderly drivers. The main bill that came out from the Joint Committee on Transportation last September rested comfortably and then died in the Ways and Means Committee with the end of the session last Wednesday. It will be back in January.

As now written, the committee bill excludes age-based road tests and includes mandatory tests for drivers 75 and older to evaluate their cognitive and physical skills. These are to be devised by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles. I assume we’re talking about visual acuity, peripheral vision, and processing speed.

Joyce’s bill has been folded into the committee bill minus the mandatory age-based road testing. He is philosophic about the change - at least there’s some testing. More important, Joint Committee on Transportation House chairman Representative Joseph Wagner opposes any bill with a road test.

“I’ve made it clear that this is a good starting point,’’ Wagner tells me. “We need to broaden the scope to keep unsafe drivers of all ages off the road.’’

Wagner says he also favors a provision requiring all drivers to produce medical clearance from a doctor before getting a license or license renewal. Uh oh.

There is another bill filed by Representative Kay Khan that, among other things, brings doctors and health care workers further into the picture. They would, on a voluntary and confidential basis, report to the Registrar patients of all ages whom they diagnose with cognitive or functional impairment. The word voluntary always spooks me.

Yet this is the one supported by powerful array of groups, from AARP Massachusetts and AAA Southern New England to the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Massachusetts/New Hampshire chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Let me say upfront that I’m an age-based road test man. You can’t fake them. And if some elderly are terrified of them, that tells me they’re terrified they’ll flunk, which in turn tells me they probably shouldn’t be on the road to begin with. New Hampshire has mandated road tests at 75 since the early ’60s, and Illinois since 1989. They’re a nonissue in both states. (Incredibly, neither has kept records to determine how effective the statutes have been.)

I’m sure there are safe 85-year-old drivers out there, but I’ve never met one who is not scary behind the wheel. Everyone has a story. My favorite involves my great aunt Helen, who lived to be 102. She claimed to be one of the early crop of women to get a driver’s license in this country, which was part of the problem. Whenever I was in the car with her, I wanted ever so much not to be in the car with her.

Helen owned a Chevy wagon with major muscle under the hood, a rocket of a thing. Her driving days ended when, in her early 90s, she drove it through the plate-glass window of a liquor store in downtown Wayne, Pa. I shudder to think how many people she could have killed, and I mourn any loss of good booze.

Wagner maintains it’s not fair to single out one group. “The problem with road testing an 80-year-old,’’ he adds, “is that you miss the 22-year-old who is a chronically bad driver.’’

But this conversation was never about 22-year-olds. It was about the elderly, who have had a horrific spate of accidents in the state this year leading to multiple deaths. Wagner and allies who oppose age-based road tests like AARP Massachusetts have hijacked that conversation.

Wagner also argues, straight-faced, that an elderly driver shouldn’t be road-tested because on that day, said driver, whose reaction time and vision may be shot the other 364 days of the year, could miraculously drive just fine and remain a menace on the road. I’m not making this up.

Deborah Banda, AARP Massachusetts state director, makes the same spiel and echoes Wagner’s argument that we should keep all unsafe drivers of any age off the road.

Governor Deval Patrick, meanwhile, has had other things on his plate, which explains the vast wiggle room embedded in his statement released last Thursday:

“The Governor recognizes that public safety on our roadways is paramount and has said on numerous occasions that if a bill that meets his standards of strengthening public safety through reasonable and thoughtful measures, he will not hesitate to sign it.’’

The good news is that we will have some kind of testing of the elderly on the books next year. The bad news is it may well sweep everyone else in, too. Let’s keep the focus on the elderly. They’re the group that triggered this conversation.

Sam Allis can be reached at