Dust off those driving skills

I thought I was such a good driver. Then I was put to the test. Two years ago, more or less as an act of bravado, I decided to try the British driving test. After 38 years on Canadian roads – without, I might add, an accident – I thought it would be a piece of cake. I failed. I took a couple of driving lessons – and failed again. It took three attempts before I passed.

The British test is tough, the examiners notorious for being picky, and I found the experience completely unnerving. My driving privileges were not even threatened – I could still drive anywhere with my Canadian license. But for a few weeks, I shook at the thought of that test; and it was easy to imagine the demoralization many older drivers feel when they’re at risk of losing their privileges.

Driving, in the kind of society in which we live today, is regarded as one of the basic freedoms, only a little below freedom of speech and worship. Losing our license means losing our mobility – our independence.

Little wonder, then, that when the Victoria Times-Colonist last year ran several articles on older drivers that many thought were unfairly negative (but which were, in fact, reasonably balanced), there we howls of outrage from some seniors.

“Why pick on seniors!” one active 76-year-old Victoria man told me. “They’re trying to lump older citizens together as one big group.” He was convinced it was all part of a government plot to crack down on older drivers. “Two fellows on my street have had their licenses taken away,” he said. “One was so upset he sold his house and moved back to Winnipeg and got his license back there.”

There’s fear among older drivers. The 76-year-old didn’t want his name published. “I might have to take a driving test – and they’d remember,” he said.

So what are the facts about older drivers? The news, I’m glad to report, is not nearly as bad as some make out. “We don’t really have an older driver problem,” Leo Tasca, research officer with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation told me. “We’re only concerned about a minority of older drivers.”

Recently, I sat in a room in Toronto with 15 very happy drivers – all allegedly 80 or more – whose licences were up for renewal. What struck me first was that most of them didn’t look old enough to be there. “Are you sure everyone here is 80?” I asked Stan Dean, who was sitting next to me. “I don’t know about them,” he said. “I’m 91.” Dean says he takes a lady friend “everywhere she wants to go,” drives several seniors, and uses his car to go lawn bowling, five-pin bowling, and to bridge, euchre, and cribbage sessions. “I drive every day, but not as far as I used to,” he said.

Janet Doyle, looking considerably less than her 80 years, told me, “I hadn’t driven in the city for 40 years. I just drove a bit up at the cottage. But my husband has emphysema and I don’t think he’ll be driving much longer. So I took some driving lessons (at 78) and here I am!” Now she drives in the city all the time.

Doyle and Dean embody two essential facts about older drivers. Some drivers, like Dean, retain a remarkable degree of driving ability until an advanced age. And, as Doyle proved, we can improve our driving skills and keep driving longer. We age at different rates, explained Ministry of Transportation officer Tasca. That means while some can drive perfectly well into their 90s, others are losing their abilities in their 50s and 60s.

The group of 80-plus drivers I saw assembled for a lively give-and-take session with examiner Margaret Kilgar represented only one third of those who originally had licenses. Most of the rest, recognizing their declining abilities, simply stopped driving. However, as Kilgar told them: “Driving is a privilege highly valued by older drivers, and it’s very important to keep our licenses.”

Kilgar showed how, even if you suffer from stiffness of the neck, you can increase your peripheral vision by turning your head as far as possible (to check your car’s blind spot) and then swivelling your eyes. Neck exercises, she said, also help in retaining flexibility. She also stressed the importance of annual vision examinations. As we age, we also find it harder to see at night, and the glare of oncoming headlights can pose a real hazard. At the education session, about half the older drivers said they no longer drive after dark. Kilgar also urged them to check with their pharmacist or doctor on the effect medications might have on their driving, to plan their trips to avoid traffic hazards, to always scan ahead and never to drive on days when they didn’t feel up to it.

But one question kept coming to mind: Why wait until 80? How many drivers, I wondered, had given up driving long before that age simply because they had neglected to maintain their skills and knowledge?

And that’s exactly the message the Canada Safety Council and its provincial counterparts are trying to get across through training programs such as 55 Alive and Coaching the Experienced Driver. “We’re finding more and more seniors are saying, we want to be involved,” said Valerie Williams, of the Ontario Safety League. So what new tricks can you teach an old dog with a lifetime of experience -not all of it good – behind the wheel?

“The frightening thing is,” said Teddy Kellen, 60, one of a group of older instructors to whom the OSL often refers drivers, “that many people are not up to snuff on the rules of the road. Put simply, when they got their licenses 40 or 50 years ago, they didn’t need to know.”

How good are older drivers? “I had a man of 95 who was probably a better driver than I am,” said Kellen. “And I’ve had people 70 to 75 that I’ve convinced to stop driving.”

He uses a machine to measure reaction time, a device that leaves little doubt about the decline that comes with the years. “But you can learn to compensate,” said Kellen. That involves creating more space around your car by not tailgating, and by keeping a sharp eye out for traffic -without impeding traffic flow. Courses, which include three or six hours classroom time, optional on-road evaluation and even skid-pad experience, cost from $30 to $65 or more, and some are organized through seniors centres. Other options: contact your nearest safety league office, or Alice Leclair at the Canada Safety Council, (613) 739-1535, ext. 232. What more can you do to make sure you keep driving safely long into later life? Exercise, especially a sensible weight-lifting program (don’t laugh!) can compensate for increasing frailty. Good nutrition (and, of course, respect for alcohol) makes us fitter drivers, too.

Chris Bellchamber, 77, a former pilot living in Edmonton, believes even the cars we drive can make a difference. Although medium-sized cars are recommended for seniors, he’s swapped his Olds Cutlass for a large Ford Crown Victoria simply because the door sills on the Ford are lower, making it easier to get in and out. It’s a fact that we lose some height as we age, so it’s important to have a seat high enough so we can see over the wheel instead of through it. Bellchamber believes car manufacturers should be doing away with tiny, hard-to-operate buttons, and standardizing dashboards – so the controls are always in the same place. “If they can do it on planes, why not on cars?” he said.

Leo Tasca predicts the percentage of drivers past 80 will increase from one per cent today to 4.5 per cent by 2030. These issues are going to be more and more important.

As for myself, although it was painful at the time, I’m glad I went through that bad shake up over my driving. I’m not perfect – far from it – but at least I know what I’m doing wrong. And that’s the first step to enjoying a long, safe and happy career behind the wheel.