Insights gained without a license

For sale: Gently used 2003 Mazda 6 with 80,000 miles. Previous owner: Doug MacDonald, state transportation secretary.

The state’s energetic highway chief with the thick Boston accent is selling his wheels, though under unfortunate circumstances.

He was recently unable to renew his license after failing the required eye exam three times.

“I suppose this goes to show that even the advance wave of baby boomers can look forward to some of these problems,” he said.

MacDonald, 61, has lived with diabetes for 29 years, and “this macular degeneration was first spotted in my eyes maybe eight or nine years ago.”

During the past few years, he said he had problems seeing while driving at night, especially in the rain. He was more comfortable running errands on the roads closer to home, just four miles away from his office in Olympia.

“When I parked the car, I completed 45 years of accident-free driving,” he said. “My sense is that I’ve been a careful and good driver, and I believe I’ve driven safely up until now.

“The rules are the rules. If my degree of visual acuity lands me on one side of the line, it’s pretty important for me to respect that.”

Without a car, he’s changing how he gets around. He’s bought new lights for his bicycle, has lined up carpools, catches the bus and rides to the grocery store.

The state Department of Licensing doesn’t track how many people fail the eye test at the counter, spokesman Brad Benfield said. The standard is a minimum 20-40 vision with or without glasses.

If a driver fails the test, further field driving tests and doctor examinations are possible. A license can be issued with either full driving privileges or restricted to daytime driving only.

MacDonald said he cobbles together rides with co-workers to visit Department of Transportation job sites and attend meetings.

Though he might be the only Transportation Department chief in the country without a license, it doesn’t affect his work, he said.

Outside of work, he’s learned the best bus routes run only on weekdays.

“The personal dimensions of this are more interesting: Obviously there’s nobody to drive me to the cleaners on Saturday,” he said. “But like lots of people, I’m managing to pick up my dry cleaning.

As transportation secretary, he said he works to make the transportation system work for everybody: drivers, bus riders, cyclists and walkers.

Still, “I expect spending more time on transit will give me lots of ideas about what transit is doing well and what it can do better,” he said.

“My parents live in Seattle, and I’m very interested in how to get from Olympia to Seattle on public transportation. I’m seeing a program which isn’t as good as it should be, but we already knew that.”

But it’s unmistakable that he misses the view behind the wheel. People are very tied to their cars and the lifestyle they provide, he said.

“If I had a chance to get back my driving privileges or a restricted license of some kind, I’d jump right on it.”

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