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Starts & Stops

‘Safe Driving’ measure has few conditions for senior motorists

‘I think we missed an opportunity to do more,’ said Senator Brian A. Joyce. ‘I think we missed an opportunity to do more,’ said Senator Brian A. Joyce. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / June 27, 2010

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On the same day that state lawmakers were celebrating their agreement over the “Safe Driving Act’’ last week, an 89-year-old woman in Chelmsford struck a 72-year-old pedestrian while pulling out of a parking lot on Fletcher Street, sending the victim onto the hood of her vehicle, then onto the pavement.

The pedestrian was not seriously injured. But the accident on Tuesday was noted by state Senator Brian A. Joyce, the Milton Democrat who tracks the older drivers issue and whose office has requested records of nonfatal accidents that would not ordinarily make the news.

Massachusetts is one of 23 states that have no extra requirements for senior drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and Joyce has filed multiple bills to require road tests or other measures to check the abilities of the state’s oldest drivers. The idea appeared to gain steam after a series of accidents last year in which senior citizens struck and killed pedestrians.

The bill the Senate passed stopped short of road tests for seniors but called for people over 75 to receive written endorsement from their doctor of their mental and physical acuity before renewing their licenses.

The House version had lower requirements for seniors, with the only stipulation being that people over 75 could no longer renew their licenses from home.

Both bills sought to encourage doctors and police officers to notify the state about people who should not be driving by shielding them from related lawsuits.

The final agreement that emerged last week from conference committee and headed for the governor’s desk Friday resembled the House bill on seniors, and the Senate bill on cellphones (a full ban for those under 18 and a texting ban for all, but no ban on handheld calls by adults).

The AARP objected to even the 75-and-over renewal measure as discriminatory on the basis of age. But Joyce and others who wanted more checks on older drivers thought it fell short.

“I was disappointed, candidly,’’ said Joyce, who says he is attuned to concerns about the independence of seniors, and who has spoken about persuading his 90-year-old father, a retired salesman who loved his 1962 Dodge station wagon, to give up his license. “We’re not hesitant to address junior operators who don’t vote, but there continues to be extraordinary reluctance to deal with very real issues impacting senior drivers who in disproportionate numbers do vote.’’

Conference committee negotiators promoting their agreement for mandatory vision tests at 75 likened it to a similar requirement in the Granite State.

“If it’s good enough for New Hampshire, it should be good enough for here,’’ said Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who represents a border district and serves as chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation.

New Hampshire defines senior drivers at age 75 and requires them to come in every five years. In addition to vision checks, the state requires them to take road tests.

Studies have not proven that road tests — beyond requiring in-person renewals — for older drivers yield fewer crashes, according to researchers. But the Insurance Institute released a report Tuesday that found the fatal crash rate among drivers 70 and over nationwide plunged 37 percent between 1997 and 2008, a faster rate than for middle-age drivers. The reasons for the decline were unclear, but the findings offered something for both sides. Some saw it as evidence that seniors are doing a better job of self-regulating. Others attributed it to new requirements in other states.

Joyce saw both. While age can diminish the physical and mental abilities that are necessary for safe driving, not all are affected at the same age, he said. But better screening might remove the minority of unworthy drivers and prevent some future accidents. “I think we missed an opportunity to do more,’’ Joyce said.

Denver takes new route to create commuter rail system
Transportation junkies are keeping an eye on Denver, where the Regional Transportation District is in the process of creating a new commuter rail system through a public-private partnership intended to save time and money. Instead of the traditional route — put the engineering and design out to bid, then put the construction out to bid, and then operate the newly built system — the Denver transit agency bundled everything into one package. And the winning bidder has to put up its own money, to be repaid over time by the transit agency.

Denver’s RTD put out to bid a 40-year contract for financing, designing, building, operating, and maintaining the first legs of its commuter rail, including an 18-mile link from downtown to the airport. The contract was awarded this month to a consortium that includes a Boston-based partner, and the $2.1 billion winning bid was $300 million less than what Colorado transportation officials expected to spend. And instead of putting all of that money up with tax dollars, the transportation district is paying less than $800 million upfront. The remainder will be invested by the private partnership, to be recouped over the life of the contract.

The thinking is that shifting risk, incentive, and responsibility to an experienced private partner could help the project come in on time and under budget and make it more responsive to the expectations of riders once the system is in service. The parties involved believe the method — endorsed by the Federal Transit Administration through a pilot program — could become a model for rail expansion or new construction in other states, according to James O’Leary, who was general manager of the MBTA from 1981 through 1989.

The company O’Leary helped found after leaving the MBTA, Alternate Concepts Inc., is one of more than a dozen partners in the Denver deal. ACI is also one of three partners in Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., which runs the MBTA’s commuter rail. That contract, which has been extended through 2013, is a more traditional public-private partnership. MBCR operates and maintains those trains on a daily basis; the T owns the equipment and is responsible for shouldering replacement costs.

The Denver arrangement could present a model for a longer deal in Boston in which the private operator would also be responsible for equipment.

“It’s a model that we certainly will encourage the MBTA to look at,’’ O’Leary said. “We think there would be savings. We think as private companies we can move more efficiently and expeditiously.’’

T rolls out Route 28 hybrid buses ahead of schedule
The MBTA drove one of its new hybrid buses to a community meeting in Mattapan last week for a walk-through and the reception was so great that the T decided to accelerate the roll-out of the vehicles on the number 28 bus route. The new buses were scheduled to arrive on the route in mid-July; instead they were in use starting yesterday.

“It was a vote by acclamation,’’ said Richard A. Davey, the T’s general manager.

The 15 hybrid buses are quieter, cleaner-burning, and more fuel-efficient than the diesels they are replacing, and they are bigger: 60-foot articulated (accordion-style) compared with 40-foot nonarticulated buses, with 50 percent more seats and even more standing room. That should help on a route that is one of the T’s five most popular and that has been the source of crowding complaints.

The catch is that the buses require more space to pull flush with the curb, so the T on Friday began removing between 60 and 90 parking spaces to extend bus stops along the route, which runs primarily along Blue Hill Avenue between Mattapan and Ruggles. About half of those removed spaces are in high-demand business districts, according to the T, which recently surveyed 500 route riders about the proposal. More than 90 percent were in favor of the trade-off, Davey said.

To make up the difference and speed up the route, the T may eliminate as many as 25 of the 86 existing bus stops along the way. Those stops are spaced closer together than the 750- to 1,320-foot range the T currently recommends for bus routes.

Any stop consolidations would be reviewed in a public process this summer that the T is initiating to identify short- and long-term opportunities to improve transit in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, Davey said.

As previously reported, the buses were part of an MBTA purchase of 25 hybrids at $915,000 apiece using federal stimulus funds.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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