The Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday approved legislation that could shield physicians from lawsuits, disciplinary procedures, or other formal complaints if they act in good faith in recommending that a patient should not be driving.
Doctors can assist families struggling to get elderly drivers to give up their keys, according to Idaho Medical Association CEO Susie Pouliot. “Having somebody from outside the family weigh in and be ‘the bad guy’ can help diffuse these difficult problems,” she said. Current state law allows doctors to recommend to ITD that someone should have driving limitations, but that action could open up doctors to lawsuits. Pouliot said she hadn’t heard of any lawsuits, but that threat affects their actions. “I think there is probably a chilling effect on physicians currently,” she said.
The Senate Transportation Committee passed the measure, with the two Democrats on the panel dissenting. “It is a worthwhile effort,” said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise. “I think it will add some safety to the roadway.”
Sen. Lee Heinrich, R-Cascade, said a doctor could have helped his family when his father should have stopped driving. “When my father got to that stage, my three sisters had a family meeting and elected me to go get dad’s keys,” he said. “I was the one that needed a doctor after that.”
Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, opposed the measure. “It really troubles me that we’re trying to do this,” she said. “I think that what we’re really doing is taking the responsibility away from family members.” Bilyeu said she also wants to know the AARP’s position on the issue. AARP, which represents older Americans, hasn’t offered a comment on the legislation, according to Pouliot, but AAA, a motorists’ association, supports the plan.
Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said the intent of the legislation is good, but he worried about some of the specifics. “We are drawing a very broad exemption here from liability,” he said. He said the “good faith” standard could be low for a doctor to make a decision that could lead to a person not being able to drive. He said he needs more information about the issue, and could vote for it on the Senate floor.
“A physician doesn’t have any professional reason to become involved at all except as a matter of public safety,” said Ken McClure, a lawyer for the Idaho Medical Association. “When you’re erring on the side of public safety, you don’t want to disincent someone from doing what they believe to be the right thing.”
Current state law allows the Idaho Transportation Department to revoke a driver’s license if the driver has a physical or mental disability that would hinder his or her ability to control a vehicle. That could include someone who suffers from seizures, momentary or prolonged lapses of consciousness, or severe eyesight problems. Anyone who receives state benefits or services for the blind also is deemed incompetent to drive a motor vehicle.
The liability shield for doctors in sending letters to ITD now heads to the Senate for a full vote. The text of the legislation is available here.