Drivers older than 50 could earn a discount on their auto insurance rates by attending approved driver safety courses under a bill considered Tuesday by the Senate Committee on Government, Consumers and Veterans Affairs, but they’ll have to wait a little longer for it as the committed voted to hold the legislation.
Meeting at the Fritz Lawaetz Conference Room in Frederiksted, the committee voted to hold Sen. Sammuel Sanes’ bill until they could hear input from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office and the insurance industry.
The five committee members in attendance expressed support for the concept, but were surprised no one from the Commissioner of Insurance’s Office, which comes under the purview of the lieutenant governor, was there to offer testimony.
Senate Bill No. 31-0049 is a carrot instead of a stick, an inducement to get older drivers to take courses to refresh them on driver safety and give them tools to evaluate their driving skills as age brings physical changes that can affect those skills, according to advocates. Rather than require drivers to take the course, it offers the reward of reduced insurance rates to those who do.
Testifying in favor of the bill, Anastasia Doward told the committee of factors that pose challenges to older drivers, which she said is a growing segment of the driving population.
Doward, who is the state coordinator for driving safety for the American Association of Retired People, said older drivers may experience vision and hearing impairments that can impact a person’s ability to drive safely. Muscle and joint impairment can also be a problem, for example, making it more difficult for a the driver to turn to look over his or her shoulder. But seniors are loathe to "hang up the keys," she said.
"Owning and driving your own vehicle is often the only way for senior citizens to remain independent and connected to their community," she said.
Doward said statistics show older drivers are involved in fewer crashes, but the consequence of those crashes are much more severe.
"While older drivers crash less frequently, when they do crash it’s more likely to lead to death," she said.
The driver safety program was designed both to remind drivers of the rules of the road and to give them tools to monitor their ability.
The key wording of the measure says, "Insurers issuing, writing or delivering motor vehicle insurance policies in the Virgin Islands shall provide for an appropriate reduction in premium rates for motor vehicle liability insurance when the principal operator on the covered vehicle is an insured 50 years of age or older and has completed a motor vehicle accident prevention course approved by the Virgin Islands Police Department."
Certification would be valid for three years and could be renewed by taking the course again.
Sanes noted that cars are getting increasingly sophisticated with a wide range of features designed to prevent accidents. But that very sophistication could be daunting, or even bewildering, to older drivers who have to learn to adapt to new technology.
If the measure is approved, the territory will join 34 states and the District of Columbia in having such a policy.
Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson said he generally favors the idea, but worried that by dictating the rates or discounts an insurer offered the government might be interfering with the free market system.
Sen. Tregenza Roach said he wondered why the discount would apply only to seniors. If younger drivers also took the required safety course, shouldn’t they also qualify for a discount, he asked.
All the senators at Tuesday’s hearing said they would prefer to hear from someone from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office and the insurance industry. Sanes said Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter’s office was contacted about the hearing but never replied.
Sanes moved that the bill be held in committee until the requested testifiers could attend. The motion passed 5-0, with Sanes, Nelson, Roach, Sens. Janette Millin Young and Justin Harrigan voting yes, and Sens. Neville James and Myron Jackson opposed.
The committee also approved and forwarded to the Rules Committee a measure sponsored by Harrigan that would make it easier for the government to identify and remove abandoned vehicles from the roads and other public property.
Bill 31-0003 had been held in committee pending changes requested after an April 22 hearing. At the time the senators had requested changes to make clarify what circumstances would make a car "abandoned" and what would be done.
Harrigan presented the requested amendments, which were approved 5-0 by the committee members present. The bill, which was then approved and forwarded to the Rules Committee, now says, "The Virgin Islands Police Department shall treat any vehicle not displaying a valid registration sticker or tag which is left on the public roadways or public property for more than 48 hours as an abandoned vehicle and shall upon notifying the registered owner, ticket, tow, preserve and store the unregistered vehicle and hold the registered owner responsible for all towing, storage charges and fines."
Harrigan said he hoped the bill would help "reduce blight in the neighborhoods and have these vehicles removed."
Millin Young said the measure puts the responsibility on the owners to follow through.
"This is a step in the right direction in trying to clean up the place. It puts a greater onus on owners to follow through," she said.
Nelson noted that in cases where a vehicle has been set afire, that is by definition a crime scene and the police should do what they can to preserve the scene and any evidence anyway, with or without passage of the bill.
"The police put yellow tape up and leave it there, and that too is inappropriate. Sometimes you’re not even notified that your car is found," he said.