Age no gauge for bad driving

Medical fitness, not age, should be the gauge for judging driver competence.Canada’s Association for the 50 Plus, CARP, has advocated this position whenever accidents involving older drivers are used as ammunition to demand mandatory re-testing based on age. And it’s the main recommendation an Ontario coroner’s jury made after hearing testimony on all sides of the senior drivers issue.

Last March, an inquest looked into the tragic death of Beth Kidnie in Toronto two years ago. She was knocked down and dragged by a car driven by Pilar Hicks, 84 at the time of the accident.

Bizarre, tragic accident
Hicks was convicted of criminal negligence causing death and is now serving a 15-month jail sentence at home.

Her lawyer emphasized she was not ill or showing signs of cognitive impairment at the time of the accident. And jurors heard from Hicks’ doctor that she had received a clean bill of health only months before. Her son called the accident “bizarre and tragic.”

The jury also heard evidence from more than a dozen other witnesses that age is not a good indicator of bad driving.

One geriaic specialist said diseases that sometimes develop with aging are more likely to impair driving ability, but age itself does not cause poor driving.

Jury’s recommendations
“With an aging population, it will be increasingly important for physicians to be educated in identifying and counselling medically impaired drivers,” the jury wrote in a report with 16 recommendations.

CARP is urging the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, the Ontario Medical Association and their counterparts across Canada to take these recommendations seriously and to work with organizations such as CARP to implement them as soon as possible.

A key recommendation was the development of a diagnostic screening tool to help doctors identify medically impaired drivers who pose a risk on the roads.
The jury noted that doctors need more education in recognizing medical impairments in patients.

They suggested including other health care professionals for identifying drivers who might be medically unfit to drive.        

What is unfit?
CARP wants a clear definition of “unfit” that is medically based. Otherwise, age-based testing could again become the standard.  

 “That would be outright ageism,” says Lilian Morganthau, CARP’s president and founder. Ontario, for example, discontinued compulsory road tests five years ago for those over 80.

Next page: Graduated de-licensing

Graduated de-licensing
Another jury recommendation is to explore a graduated de-licensing program. This would be an alternative to outright suspension for drivers with some degree of medical impairment, whatever their age.

In CARP’s view, this makes sense. An example would be someone with poor night vision. A restricted license, barring night driving, would leave an older driver some mobility and independence, under appropriate restrictions.

Another restriction might ban highway driving. Similar restrictions apply to new drivers in some provinces. These restrictions recognize that certain drivers have enough ability to drive, in less stressful environments only.  

No highway driving
A recent letter from CARP member Patricia Barre of London, Ont., supports this idea.

“A couple of years ago, I decided to stop driving on highways. I have been driving for years and enjoy it, but not at high speeds,” states Barre, 82.  

At her last birthday, she says she reported to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to renew her driver’s license. She passed driver vision and written tests, and attended an information session for senior drivers.

Then a member of her family spoke to her doctor about her continuing to drive at her age. Her doctor, as required by law, reported this to the Ministry, and Barre was notified she would have to take a road test to qualify for license renewal.

The test included driving on the multi-laneHighway 401 near her home in London.

“This was a shock. I had not expected to drive ever again on those fast lanes,” she wrote.

Seniors self-policing
Barre is typical of senior drivers. They responsibly police themselves, because risky behaviour could cost them their licence—and that means a loss of independence.

Driving is important to Barre’s lifestyle:“My car takes me to church, to my club, to social meetings and to get groceries…”So she was determined to pass.

To prepare for her March appointment, she took two hours of refresher training at a driving school.

Review driver skills
She picked up helpful tips: “One thing we may not do nearly enough is watch for our blind spot, continually checking in the mirrors. I know this was bad for me. But now, I’m much more careful.”

She also advises senior drivers to get a recent drivers’ handbook “and go over everything, such as the three-point turn, parallel parking, every driving signal. Everyone going for a road test should know how to do everything in the handbook. Update your skills.”

During her road test, Barre did drive on a busy section of the 401 highway near her home.

“I completed the same test that the general population has to take,” she said. And she passed. “I had a great feeling of joy. It was—there, you see. Just because I’m 82, it doesn’t mean I’m not capable.”