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New rules define unsafe drivers

State health regulators Wednesday morning unanimously approved rules that define when a person is too cognitively or functionally impaired to drive safely.

The state Public Health Council, an appointed panel of physicians, consumer advocates, and professors, adopted the rules after a brief discussion, to give health care providers guidance in evaluating when drivers should be required to give up their car keys.

The rules, which are expected to take effect in several weeks, make clear that age and illness are not by themselves factors that would disqualify a person from having a license. Instead, the decision will be based on “observations or evidence of the actual effect” that an impairment may have on a person’s ability to drive safely, according the regulations, which were developed based on public hearings and advice from medical specialists.

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Cognitive impairment is defined as an impediment that “limits a person’s ability to sustain attention, avoid distraction, understand the immediate driving context, and refrain from impulsive responding.”

Some council members said the next step after approving the new rules should be to ensure that the information is widely disseminated to health care providers .

John Auerbach, state public health commissioner and chair of the council, said his department will ask the state agency that licenses physicians, the Board of Registration in Medicine, to include the new rules on its website where physicians must renew their licenses.

“Our experience with that has been quite positive,” Auerbach said.

The council acted at the direction of the Legislature, which in 2010 passed a law that encouraged providers and police to report suspected impaired drivers to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, by giving them immunity from lawsuits. The law also prohibits people over 75 from renewing their licenses online; they must visit a registry branch and take a vision test.

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Age-related safety concerns became a flashpoint in 2010 after a series of car accidents involving older drivers.


Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.