A rite of passage for young people is more and more also serving to signal a much later stage of adulthood.
Taking driving lessons in order to pass a road test is common for older people hoping to hang on to their ability to get behind the wheel.
“Seniors now make up about 15 per cent of all our business,” said Arthur Harris, who owns DriveWise driving school and has been in the business of teaching drivers for three decades.
“It’s just the beginning. The baby boomers are coming on stream. I think in another 10 to 20 years there are going to be more seniors than 16 year olds (taking driving lessons).”
The reason is simple. Seniors are prone to medical issues that threaten safe driving practices. Under provincial regulations, if a driver fails three driving re-exams, their licence is permanently revoked.
“A lot of them are still driving (like they did) back in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s when blind spot checks didn’t exist,” Harris said.
“There are different road signs, new road signs, there are roundabouts, traffic circles – driving has changed over the last 50 years.”
The three-strike rule isn’t just for seniors, it’s for anyone deemed a “medically at-risk driver,” according to Stephanie Melvin, acting superintendent of motor vehicles.
However, of the 130,000 reviews done annually by the Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, 44,000 of them are for drivers aged 80 or older.
The other 86,000 reviews are for professional drivers or people with known medical conditions.
“We really try to keep people driving as long as we possibly can,” Melvin said. “We’re very research-based, and we spend a lot of time making sure there’s an actual link between a person’s medical condition and a person’s safety.”
Drivers older than 80 require a medical exam every two years and a doctor’s OK to let them drive “because this is an age where medical conditions affecting driving are more common,” according to the OSMV.
Norah McQuiggan is four years away from that age, and remains a regular driver. In fact, she is a volunteer driver with Saanich Volunteer Services Society. She chauffeurs fellow seniors who are unable to drive to appointments and grocery stores two or three days a week.
“Having my licence means that I can stay independent. I don’t have to rely on my daughter or son-in-law to get me places,” she said. “I can still go out and do my own errands on my own time.” She knocks wood when she says she’s yet to have any health issues appear that could eventually impact her driving, but understands that may become an issue down the road.
“I’m hoping I can drive for another five or 10 years,” she said. “I will be really disappointed if I lose my driver’s licence.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many who cling to their cars as symbols of independence. It can be difficult, however, to accept that they’ve reached a point where their driving is dangerous for themselves and others.
On June 17, Saanich police responded to Royal Oak Plaza to a report of an elderly driver who hit multiple vehicles. The woman, a 90-year-old, was backing out of a parking spot and apparently mistook the pedals, hitting four other cars. Nobody, including the driver, was injured, though witness Jodie McKinney says the woman appeared to be disoriented when she got out of the car.
“We all stood there in sheer disbelief that she gunned the gas and kept going. When people came to get her out of the car she was in shock that she hit them,” she said.
“That day another elderly lady parked next to me. I actually moved my car because she was probably about 85 and she had a hard time getting out of the vehicle. She even said to me: ‘I think I might’ve hit your door.’”
Saanich police Sgt. Dean Jantzen said the woman who hit the four vehicles wasn’t ticketed, but her licence will be reviewed by the OSMV.
“It’s certainly a reminder to those of us who have aged parents to be mindful and get involved, and know what your elderly parent or grandparent is doing, and understand there are mechanisms in place to have their licence reviewed,” he said.
The review process, according to Melvin, is quite simple. Typically the review comes from a police officer or physician, though family members can make anonymous requests.
A doctor will then determine whether there are medical issues affecting the ability to drive. If there are, attempts are made to allay the problem.
Suspect drivers can also be made to re-take their road test.
“With seniors, their mobility is not the same, they can’t look over the shoulder for blind spot checks. Their hearing is going, their eye sight is going, their reflexes are starting to decrease,” driving school owner Harris said, acknowledging that the aging process affects everyone differently. “I’ve had 90-year-olds come in who are bright, quick as a whip, and will be driving for a long time.”
He estimates that, for seniors, there’s only a 25 per cent pass rate for re-exams when there are no driving lessons taken. Even with driving lessons, he estimates 45 to 50 per cent of those tested ultimately lose their licences.
“It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. It’s hard for them to retain that new information and remember it on their own,” he said. “Fifty years of habits are hard to break.”
For more information on testing a driver’s medical fitness, visit www.pssg.gov.bc.ca/osmv.