by Lawrence Herzog

Ray Scisson of Regina is 75 and knows the day will soon come when he has to give up his driver’s licence. Still, he and his wife, Vera, 74, decided to take the Saskatchewan Safety Council’s 55 Alive course (co-sponsored by CAA Saskatchewan and the Royal Bank) to “jar our memories and refresh ourselves on ways to be better drivers.” Back when Ray got his licence at 16, there was no road exam. “I was amazed at how much I learned during the six-hour 55 Alive session. We like to think we know it all, but we don’t.”

Ray and Vera are among an increasing number of older drivers in Canada. Over the next quarter-century, as the baby-boom population ages, the percentage of older drivers will jump dramatically. Statistics Canada projects that by 2026, nearly five million Canadians – more than 20 per cent of all drivers – will be 65 or older.

Already, drivers over 80 years old are the fastest-growing segment of the driving population, and older-driver fatalities and injuries are forecast to at least triple in the next 35 years. Such a demographic shift demands that systems be implemented to make automobiles and the driving environment safer for older drivers – which means safer roads for everyone. But do we know enough about aging drivers to implement the changes to achieve that goal?

Although studies of crash rates indicate people age 65 and older are relatively safe drivers on a collision per driver basis, those crash rates increase with age and it is the oldest drivers (over 80 years) who pose a greater risk to themselves and the public. A recent report from the Centre on Aging at the University of Victoria concludes it is unclear whether the abilities of older drivers are compromised because of age itself or because they have one or more medical conditions that can affect driving. The report, co-authored by Holly Tuokko and Fiona Hunter, concludes there is a need for a review of the current laws regulating fitness to drive in the context of age.

Research generally shows that, as we get older, our physical strength and agility change and so do attention skills and other mental abilities relevant to driving. The change is gradual at first, but after age 55 it accelerates more rapidly. By age 60, these changes in our perceptual, cognitive and motor functioning can lead to shorter attention spans and slower reaction times.

The Canada Safety Council reports older drivers are more likely than their younger counterparts to be involved in multi-vehicle crashes, particularly at intersections. Based strictly on kilometres driven, older drivers have more collisions than any other age group. A 1999 study by University of Alberta researchers Dr. Allen Dobbs and Dr. Bonnie Dobbs shows that the collision rate rises steadily after age 70, and, for drivers 75 or older, it rivals or exceeds that for drivers aged 16 to 24. Older drivers are also more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash because their bodies are less able to withstand an impact.

Because our eyes convey up to 85 per cent of the information necessary to drive, any deterioration in eyesight can significantly affect our ability to drive safely. Aging reduces our ability to clearly distinguish details – at rest and in motion – and to quickly change focus between objects at close range, such as the instrument panel, and those at a distance, such as traffic and signs on the road. Age causes our pupils to become less responsive to light and also takes a toll on depth perception, peripheral vision and night vision. When we’re 60 years old, our eyes take in only one-third of the light they did when we were 20.

We all age at different rates, though, so using age alone to measure ability isn’t a solution.

“We don’t evaluate drivers based solely on age and we have no programs that are strictly age-based,” says Phyllis Glowatsky, manager of driver programs for Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI). “We believe that education and awareness are the ways to handle this challenge, and our experience has been that putting the responsibility to report health problems on the individual driver and their doctors has worked very well.” Under the Saskatchewan system, doctors and SGI can determine the necessity of a driver medical or examination based on each patient’s circumstances and assessment.

But not all Canadian jurisdictions agree, and some are now evaluating the merit of graduated de-licensing systems that take away driving privileges in stages. Some American states, including Maryland, are looking at systems that accurately identify high-risk older individuals (typically 55 and up) so that these drivers can then be assisted with improving their skills, changing their habits or finding viable alternatives to driving.

While periodic re-testing is compulsory for drivers aged 75 years or older in most Canadian provinces, and as young as 45 in Spain and 60 in France, there’s no such requirement in Saskatchewan. CAA Saskatchewan supports the principle of lifelong driver education but believes the privilege of driving should be ability-related, not strictly age-related.

Indeed, although older drivers process information and react more slowly than younger people, experience, mature judgment and good driving habits often compensate for these diminished skills. “There’s a general perception that older drivers are worse drivers, and that’s just not true,” says Jeff Caird, associate professor of psychology at the University of Calgary. “Experience makes a huge difference.” Unless there is dementia or other serious illness, judgment skills do not decline with age, and most older drivers recognize and avoid situations where their limitations put them at risk.

Lee Carlson, an instructor with the 55 Alive program for the Saskatchewan Safety Council, says his experience with older drivers indicates age itself is not as much a factor as one might think. “A lot of the older drivers I work with have never had a driving test, and sometimes a refresher course can really help considerably. It is important to break through the idea that, ‘I’ve been driving for 50 years and there’s nothing wrong with my driving.’ We all have bad habits, and some of those bad habits can kill or injure us.”

But when bad habits are overshadowed by age-related diminished abilities, the question is: How can we know when it’s time to hang up the car keys? For some, the decision is driven by significant changes in their physical health. Sometimes concerned families and friends intervene by explaining to those reluctant to assess their skills and abilities that they’re a hazard to themselves and others on the road. But telling someone they can no longer drive is like telling them you’re taking away their independence and freedom.

“For the generation that grew up with the automobile, there is nothing worse than having their licence taken away,” Carlson says.

According to Dr. Caird, relying on physicians to make decisions about driving fitness isn’t a good strategy because “doctors are not terribly good at assessing capabilities of older drivers.” Fearing that their licence may be revoked, patients are also sometimes reluctant to be honest with their physicians. And those physicians who report unfit drivers run the risk of losing a patient and ruining the doctor-patient relationship, though in most provinces, including Saskatchewan, reporting an unfit driver is mandatory.

The Canada Safety Council supports the concept of graduated de-licensing as a way to enhance road safety without taking away the independence of drivers with diminishing abilities. “We know that mandatory testing at a certain age scares older people, and many turn in their licences needlessly,” says Raynald Marchand, manager of traffic safety and training for the Canada Safety Council. “But it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing scenario. It makes sense to place restrictions gradually on elements like night driving or driving during rush hour, and to at least allow drivers to retain some of their mobility.”

Such a process would also give aging drivers time to make the necessary life-style changes, which may include moving to a neighbourhood where not having a car is workable. “It’s important to remove as much of the fear and anxiety as we can, and to help people to remain mobile and independent as long as possible,” says Marchand. “It just makes good sense.”

Canadian Automobile Association members agree. A CAA survey, conducted in
October 2002, found strong support for licence review measures. More than three-quarters of members surveyed agreed with mandatory medical and eye testing at specific ages and mandatory driver refresher training based on driver record/collision experience. Opposition to mandatory testing based on age is highest among older members – the group most likely to be affected.

Ray Scisson believes refresher courses go a long way to help aging motorists drive longer and more safely. “I’m encouraging my friends now to take the 55 Alive course and learn ways to cope with diminishing abilities. It’s all about giving people the skills to drive safely and keep their mobility and their independence.”


This feature originally appeared in Westworld Saskatchewan, CAA Saskatchewan’s magazine to its members.

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