Keep your wits behind the wheel

It started with a few minor incidents — minor in that no one was hurt and no damage was done except to my nerves. A couple of times, I made a left-hand turn in front of oncoming traffic, momentarily forgetting who had the right of way. Once, on a secondary highway, my hood flew up after I’d neglected to relatch it following a trip to a self-service gas station. Then there was the time I panicked on Toronto’s Hwy. 401, jamming on the brakes as a huge transport truck loomed up beside me.

Fear of driving began to set in with a vengeance. It got to the point where I refused to drive at night, then on major highways, then on city streets. Eventually, I refused to drive at all, catching rides with whoever was willing to give me a lift to the cottage or a local meeting of the book club.

What’s age got to do with it?
This didn’t happen all at once, of course, but roughly over a period of 10 years, beginning when I was in my late 40s. I blamed the aging process and, in part, I was right. As we age, our mental and physical faculties change, which can not only lead to errors in judgment but prompt our self-confidence to vanish like a puff of smoke.

be perfectly honest, there are many seniors who continue to hit the roads even when they shouldn’t. More dependent on their cars to get around than at any other time of their lives, they’re loath to give their vehicles up. “The car is a powerful symbol of mobility and independence,” says Dr. Heather MacDonald, geriatrician and medical vice-president of the aging program at Toronto’s Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre. “Older people who can no longer walk long distances rely heavily on cars for shopping trips, appointments, outings.”

Next page: Driver re-education

Driver’s re-education
Remo Minichiello is the manager of the driver rehabilitation program at the Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre in Toronto, which assesses a driver’s competence and offers training to combat fear of driving. (There are similar programs in other provinces.)

While nervousness is common at all ages, notably after an accident, says Minichiello, it does increase with age. One mistake an older driver habitually makes, he says, is to slow down. Fear of speed can lead to fear of lane changes, which can lead to situations fraught with risk. After all, as Minichiello points out, “the flow of traffic still keeps going at a certain rate.” Still, Minichiello cautions against stereotyping the older driver. A man in his 90s can have 20/20 vision; a woman in her 60s, a firm, calm command of the wheel. To children alarmed by their parents’ failure to balance a checkbook, Minichiello points out that a lack of certain cognitive abilities doesn’t necessarily affect the way seniors drive.The solution? Drive with them, he says. “How do you know they can cook unless you’ve been in their kitchen?”

Refresh your skills
In other words, just because you’re older doesn’t mean you have to throw away your car keys. Sometimes, all that’s needed is a refresher course in driver training. Nor is there anything wrong with picking and choosing your comfort level. Joyce, 74, has no problem negotiating the pitch-black country roads near the small town where she lives but point-blank refuses to drive in large, busy cities. Garth, 50, won’t drive at night. “My night vision has never been good,” he says, “but now I even have trouble seeing the white turn arrows painted on the roads.” Avoiding rush hour and bad weather, confining driving to the immediate neighbourhood and planning trips out of town on Sunday when there’s less traffic are all tricks of the trade seniors have used to retain their driving independence.

For my part, after a few tentative forays onto country roads, I’ve resumed driving again, my confidence bolstered by leasing a new car noted for its sound engineering. I steer clear of major highways, having discovered that minor byways will still get me from A to B (albeit more slowly) — and they’re a lot more scenic. I try to be ever-aware and alert –hard to believe I used to drive for relaxation — taking special care with my old bête noire, the left-hand turn. And I can still parallel-park like a dream — a lesson ingrained from the driver’s ed course I took 43 years ago. In fact, I just may take another one.