We’re living longer, and for many seniors, that means they’re driving longer too.
But as aging takes a toll on our eyesight, hearing and reflexes, it can be harder for some seniors to retain their driving privileges.
Arthur Harris, CEO of DriveWise Canada B.C., said part of the reason some seniors don’t pass their driving assessments later on in life is because of the amount of time between road tests. Most people get their full licence at 19 or in their early 20s, and apart from doctor-initiated tests, they don’t get called back until they’re 80 years old.
“From the age of 19 to 80, there are no re-exams,” he said. “A lot of the seniors we get have been driving for 30, 40, 50, 60 years, and have never been tested.”
Seniors are either called in for a driving assessment if they reach the age of 80 or if their doctor requests an assessment due to concerns about their physical or mental health.
“If the doctor feels there’s some cognitive impairment, they’re obligated by law now to let the office of the superintendent of motor vehicles know that this person might be at risk, and they’d get called in for a re-exam,” said Harris.
A doctor-initiated request includes a computer test for cognitive impairment that measures reaction time and word recognition for road signs. If a senior falls within a certain range on the computer test, they will be called in for a driving assessment.
“It’s not an actual road test, it’s an assessment to see if you recognize traffic lights, pedestrians walking across the street, the difference between an advance light and a regular light,” said Harris. “Based on the medical that they’ve done and the cognitive assessment and the driving, the superintendent decides if they’re safe to drive or not.”
If a senior passes their test, they retain their licence, but if they fail, they are given a temporary learner’s licence, which requires somebody to be in the car with them. They are allowed three attempts to regain their full licence, with a three-strikes-you’re-out policy.
Harris estimated that of the seniors who take the mandatory re-exam at 80, about 50 to 60 per cent of them pass.
“It’s not as high as the 16-year-olds, novice drivers,” he said. “Because they haven’t had any training or retraining for the last 60 years, and because they’re physically and mentally slowing down, not as many pass on the first time as a 16-year-old who’s quick and sharp.
“We find that a 16-year-old who takes some lessons probably has an 80 per cent chance of passing.”
Harris said many seniors value the ability to drive, and losing their licence can be very shocking.
“It changes their lifestyle,” he said. “A lot of seniors are fairly active, and to lose their licence, it can be pretty devastating for them.”
Six decades of poor driving habits can be hard to undo, which is why Harris recommends seniors prepare for their assessment by studying up on new road signs and performing simple mobility exercises, such as Tai Chi or light yoga, to loosen up stiff muscles to perform blind spot checks and the like.
He also recommended that seniors plan their routes to avoid congested urban areas or streets that they don’t feel comfortable driving on, opting for more roads with advanced left turn signals and easier traffic. He said other factors like time of day should be taken into consideration for a safer, more relaxing drive.
As Baby Boomers are starting to reach old age, Harris said we’re going to see more seniors on the road soon.
“For the next 20 years, the senior population is going to significantly increase,” he said. “Most families now have one or two kids, where that generation had five, six, seven kids.
“There’s going to be more 80-year-olds on the road than there are 16-year-olds, and that’s going to be interesting.”
Of course, Harris said technology is catching up, and sooner or later, we’ll all be in driverless vehicles.
“I can hardly wait until we have driverless cars. I’m going to be out of business, but that’s all right,” he said with a laugh.