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New laws seek to enhance driver safety

By Yasmine Jumaa, VCU Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In 2015, a driver with severe vision problems hit and killed a bicyclist in Hanover County. The motorist was “basically legally blind,” recalled Del. Hyland “Buddy” Fowler, who represents the county in the Virginia House.

Now the state is about to implement two new laws to help prevent such tragedies. One will require motorists to have a wider field of vision, and the other will encourage health-care professionals to report motorists who have medical problems that may impair their driving. Fowler sponsored both bills, which will take effect July 1.

“The folks at the Virginia Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons took a look at the vision requirements and came to me and said, ‘You need to do better for the public safety issue,’ and wanted to know if I’d carry a bill in the House, which I told them I’d be glad to do,” said Fowler, whose district includes parts of Hanover, Caroline and Spotsylvania counties.

House Bill 1504sets new standards for obtaining and keeping a driver’s license or learner’s permit. It will increase the minimum field of vision that a driver must have in Virginia from 100 degrees to 110 degrees. That means drivers must have a greater ability to see what is on the periphery as well as what is in front of them.

“Being able to see properly and being able to scan the roads is a very important part of safe driving,” said Brandy Brubaker, public relations and media liaison for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

HB 1514,alsocarriedbyFowler, gives doctors and other health-care professionals civil immunity if they report patients who have vision or other medical problems that may impair their ability to drive safely.

The law will protect health-care practitioners from legal action if they tell DMV that they believe someone has a disability or impairment and shouldn’t be driving. For instance, the motorist could not sue the physician for violating practitioner-patient confidentiality.

“With that act of good faith, if they report somebody to the DMV to be examined, and if they suspect that the person shouldn’t be driving for legitimate health reasons, they will be protected from a legal situation,” Fowler said. He believes the law will foster “a greater reporting of folks that probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel.”

DMV officials said they already protect the identity of people who tell the agency that somebody may be an unsafe driver because of vision or health concerns.

“We get these reports from law enforcement, family members, maybe even neighbors, and we are prohibited to release information on the source for those medical reports that we receive,” Brubaker said.

When DMV receives such reports, she said, “We review cases of drivers who may have health or medical conditions that would impair or hinder their safe driving.”

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico County sponsored companion bills to Fowler’s legislation: SB 1229was identical to HB 1504,andSB 1024wasthesameas HB 1514. The General Assembly approved all four bills during its 2017 session.

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