Giving Up the Keys
Scorned by society, targeted by regulations, older motorists just want to keep on driving
HUNCHED BEHIND a massive steering wheel in an old-model car sits the stereotypical geriatric driver, peering over the dashboard through Coke-bottle glasses, swerving from lane to lane, all the while oblivious to the mayhem he or she is causing and ignoring the shouting drivers around them.
While hackneyed portrayals like these are common fodder for movies or ads – they do a great disservice to those who have been driving the roads safely for more than six, sometimes seven decades. Ultra-negative depictions reinforce the mistaken notion that all senior citizens are terrible drivers and bring about calls for blanket testing on all older drivers.
Over the past decade, some provinces, particularly Ontario and B.C., have imposed rigorous regulations on the licensing of elderly drivers (see sidebar, next page), requiring them to undergo medical and road tests at 75 or 80. These can be an onerous, stressful and sometimes costly impositions on people who need the car to maintain their independence – visiting family or
The Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA) has developed medical standards that health-care professionals use to assess older drivers. Conditions include: slowed reaction time, lack of attentiveness, poorer judgment, failing vision, slowed thought process, episodes of confusion, declining memory, loss of physical strength, arthritis, severe respiratory problems and liability to sudden changes in heart rhythm. friends or driving south for the annual winter getaway – not to mention carrying out the necessary tasks of everyday life, shopping, picking up the grandkids, going to doctor’s appointments, etc.
“When older people lose their licences, it’s a sentence to social isolation,” says Wanda Morris, CARP’s director of advocacy. “And we have to be careful about passing that sentence.” About 3.25 million Canadians over 65 have a driver’s licence – 200,000 of whom are 80 or older. Those who are in good health and have clean driving sheets see mandatory age-based testing as a form of discrimination. Clearly, it’s a touchy subject. “As much as we want to say age is not a factor in driving, it is,” says Brenda Vrkljan, an associate professor of occupational therapy at McMaster University and co-lead investigator with Canadian Driving Research Initiative for Vehicular Safety in the Elderly (Candrive), a program dedicated to improving the safety of older drivers.
Vrkljan says that agerelated medical conditions do inhibit our ability to safely operate a vehicle. She feels it’s an unfortunate necessity for provincial ministries of transportation to target at-risk groups, weeding out the bad drivers and educating those on health issues that can affect their driving. The best way to do this is through programs like those
in place in Ontario or B.C.
Besides age-based programming, an older driver can lose his or her licence based on the call of a healthcare professional. Perhaps they’ve had heart problems or an issue has arisen from their annual physical. “We’re not always expecting that our driving is going to be addressed as part of that conversation,” says Vrkljan. At this point, the doctorpatient relationship can get tense; it’s up to the physician to report any health issues that may affect a driver’s ability to the ministry of transportation. It’s no wonder some drivers are unwilling to see a healthcare professional simply because they don’t want to be reported.
The debate over whether older drivers are more dangerous than any other age group hasn’t been completely settled. Statistics show that crashes (per kilometres driven) among drivers over 80 are similar to those of younger drivers. Ezra Hauer of the University of Toronto’s civil engineering department argued in a Canadian Medical Association Journal that the so-called age-related decline in driving ability is a “false claim.” Hauer claims older drivers are no riskier than any other age group but that they tend to be overrepresented in collision
fatalities because people in this age group tend to be more frail, whereas a younger driver might walk away from a fender-bender, an older driver could be hospitalized or die.
Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests older drivers stay safe because they self-regulate: they only drive short distances and avoid driving on highways, at night or in poor weather conditions.
In spite of this, no one is saying that 80-year-olds should have unrestricted access to the congested metropolitan streets, winding rural roads and intensely fast highways across Canada. Clearly, some need to have their keys taken away, such as the 20,000 early dementia sufferers that Statistics Canada claims still have their licence. We’ve all seen what dementia can do to people at home or in a nursing home. The idea of sharing the road with these high-risk drivers is indeed a scary thought.
Ultimately, governments should aim to get all bad drivers off the road, whether they are teenagers who text and drive, 20-somethings who drive recklessly, 40-year-olds who were never good drivers or 80-year-olds with early-stage Alzheimer’s.
“We need to treat people fairly,” says Vrkljan. “The stigma [against older drivers] exists in greater society. In the end we want to keep people mobile. We don’t want to flag people who are safe.”