Chapter 34: The End of the Road?

When do we stop driving, and who decides?

The first car I ever bought was a 1954 Jaguar XK-120 Drophead Coupe. I saw it one day in 1965, walking back from the old CBC Radio building where I’d just interviewed for my first media job. I turned the corner at Jarvis and Carlton in Toronto, and there it was, parked by the curb, a gorgeous sports car with the curvy, sweeping lines that made it look like its name. I knew it was beautiful and rare and costly, and I was just out of school and just about broke; but still, for some reason, I jotted down the licence plate number. The next morning, compounding my folly, I showed up at the Motor Vehicle Bureau and asked if I could have the name and address of the registered owner. I was told, not unreasonably, that they couldn’t be provided as it was against policy, without exceptional circumstances. Over the space of a couple of hours, I attempted to persuade several people that my admiration and interest were exceptional, but they remained unmoved. Not quite knowing what to do next, I sat down for a moment to think. By that time, it was lunch and, as everyone in the office cleared out on break, one woman whose face I never saw, and for reasons I’ll never know, slipped me a piece of paper as she walked by with the name and phone number of the owner on it!

It turned out that Bill (the owner) was a wealthy 86-year-old who lived in a mansion on Sherbourne Street and who had zero interest in selling his car. When I persisted, he told me, snappily, to go away. Instead, I kept calling him over the next few days and, finally, he agreed to see me. His wife had died many years earlier, but I found out Bill, a very positive guy, had a younger girlfriend, a gal in her mid-70s, with whom he liked to go dancing; and, apparently, she was having trouble getting in and out of the low-slung convertible. “Well then,” I suggested helpfully, “why not sell me the 120 and buy yourself one of these snazzy new Mustangs that are just hitting the market.” “Get a red one,” I added. “She’ll like that, your girl.” Amazingly, he went for it. “Okay, okay, I’ll sell it,” he conceded. “But, you know, Jaguars are expensive.” “Bill,” I said, “you can have any amount of money you want for it, as long as it’s $850. I’ve got a thousand dollars to my name, and I need $150 for the insurance.” There followed a pause that seemed to go on forever, but finally he flashed me a smile and put out his hand to shake. So Bill bought a flaming red Mustang and sold me the Jag for 850 bucks, which I took as a great omen launching me into my working life. Implausibly, by dint of taste and persistence, I’d acquired something beautiful and valuable to which I couldn’t otherwise aspire. I also got the job at the CBC. The car, and driving it, became for me a symbol of daring, freedom and independence.

I thought of the XK-120 recently when a series of stories made the news involving a different kind of “driving” theme: the end of driving, enforced or otherwise, for aging people. Anyone who’s had this experience, or knows a friend or family member who has, also knows that it’s as traumatic as the getting of “wheels” is liberating. Having to stop driving collapses the world around you. To maintain mobility is to maintain engagement in a world larger than your immediate home or neighbourhood; it’s a metaphor for mastery of your own life. To lose mobility is to feel that mastery begin to slip. And the people affected by this reverse rite of passage are anything but a marginal driving demographic. As our population ages, the number of older drivers is increasing proportionally. In 2009, there were already three million Canadians over 65 with drivers licences, 200,000 of whom were over 85. According to Statistics Canada, three-quarters of older Canadians drive.

Which is why the stories I was reading were so disturbing. The most notorious involved the infamous “snitch line,” which was established briefly in Sudbury, Ont. The program was originally set up to encourage people to call the local Crime Stoppers tip line anonymously and report dangerous drivers; but the trouble hit when police began to stress reporting elder drivers (who, they claimed, were involved in almost as many collisions as drivers under 25), and plainclothes policemen started showing up at said seniors’ doors to suggest that maybe they should consider surrendering their licences or availing themselves of other possible “help” the police could provide. The visits were “shocking” and “intimidating,” and the reaction was immediate and negative, even from people outside Canada.

The senior snitch line was probably well-intentioned. According to Greater Sudbury police Chief Frank Elsner, the vast majority of driving complaints to the force, and not just the tip line, were from “family members that do not want to have that very difficult conversation with their mother and father … So we get the call, and then we’re the bad guy.” In effect, the police were acting as hit men for family stool pigeons. It was a perfect example of the double-barrelled way senior driver regulations in this country are failing everybody. On one hand, the mechanisms tend to stigmatize older drivers in general, which can lead to even competent older drivers losing their licences. On the other, the specific senior driving tests that most provinces administer tend to be so inadequate that some people who indeed shouldn’t be driving are still on the road. What’s clearly missing are effective standardized driving tests that are applied universally, at regular intervals, to the driving population at large, regardless of age.

I’m not saying that there aren’t seniors driving who shouldn’t be, people who because of dementia or sensory deficits pose a danger to others and themselves. I am saying that the lack of fair, non-stigmatizing, meaningful driver testing for seniors – indeed, all adults subsequent to first licensing – has created a legitimate grievance among our demographic along with an atmosphere of mistrust that’s fuelled by a lot of conflicting information, some reliable, some not. Take the area of automobile insurance. In 2009, Denis Olorenshaw, a 92-year-old Torontonian, filed a complaint before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, claiming that his insurance company, Western Assurance, was discriminating against him on an age basis by charging him $250 more yearly for insuring his Toyota than it was charging his 62-year-old daughter for coverage for exactly the same model car. The insurance company argued that the difference was justified by the elevated accident rate of over-80 drivers, which was higher than every other age group except the under-25 bracket. The tribunal sided with the insurance company, citing the higher rates permitted for the under-25 group as a precedent.

It’s tempting to see this as another example of ageist prejudice, but the reality isn’t quite so simple. According to John McGowan, the Director of Corporate Underwriting with Northbridge, which has been providing auto insurance coverage to CARP members for years, the number of claims rises dramatically between the younger end and the older end of the CARP demographic, to the point where in the older age groups, Northbridge is paying out more in claims than it’s collecting in premiums. “The average driver age 78 or older is responsible for 65 per cent more collisions than the average driver in the 50 to 77 age group,” he says. Does Northbridge agree with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that it’s reasonable, under our current actuarial-based mass system, to charge a higher rate for drivers over 78? Yes. But they also strongly support fairer, more frequent testing over a driver’s entire driving career, something Tony O’Brien, the company’s Executive Vice-President, considers to be good for everyone. “It’s ridiculous that you can get a licence at 16,” he says, “and not have to be tested for another 64 years.” As it’s obviously too expensive to test everybody every year, perhaps random or periodic testing might work. If poor drivers are weeded out sooner across the board, maybe prices can come down for all of us.

So what am I advocating, keeping both justice and practicality in mind? One, standardized, statistically reliable driving tests, to be administered not just to aging drivers but all drivers at various intervals. Two, readily available training and re-training programs for all adults, as codified by the Young Drivers of Canada program. Three, if necessary, a graduated licensing system for certain adult drivers (similar to the one now in use for new drivers) to be determined not by age but by test score, so that drivers who are only comfortable with driving in daylight hours, or on city streets but not major highways, can continue to drive with those restrictions. And four, that we accept the inevitable when that time comes, but with the caveat that the playing field be level.

The Jaguar XK-120? I still have it. It was the first car I owned, and it will be the last. Apparently, it’s worth a bit more today than it was when I bought it (about a hundred times more), but I won’t be selling it either; it’s too perfect a car for astonishing young children and turning the heads of women d’un certain âge. It will be a devastating moment when I can no longer drive it, I know, but it will help if the process that determines whether or not I have to hand in my keys is a fair and square one, not a function of any assumed frailty on my part because of my membership in a particular cohort, but an affirmation that I’m in the same boat as everyone else. That’s all any of us can ask.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.