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Better Driver

When you're too old to drive Add to ...

One of the toughest things to accept as we grow older is that we are no longer capable of driving safely.

The loss of this freedom is a serious blow. It signifies yet another sign of deterioration, and a growing dependence on others. Yet there does come a time when our ability to drive safely - to do so without endangering ourselves and others - reaches a point where intervention is necessary.

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The biggest problems are determining when a driver reaches that point and who gets the unfortunate task of informing them they can no longer drive, that their licence is being refused or cancelled.

There is no question older drivers deserve fairness and I have first-hand experience that a given age or point in time is not the answer. I have performed assessments on 85-year-olds who were much more alert and aware of their surroundings and safer at the wheel than many people one-quarter their age. I've also witnessed many a teen or young person who was a clear and present danger at the wheel.

Most jurisdictions around the globe struggle with the problem of how the news is given. The family doctor is often tagged for this chore, but he or she is naturally reluctant to endanger a relationship built on trust, one where proper care and medicine depends on the patient feeling at ease revealing the most intimate issues. Insurance companies and licensing agencies are obviously interested in ensuring dangerous drivers are taken off the road. But when? And who?

Setting a specific age is not the answer. We are all different and that certainly applies to our ability to drive - regardless of age. The most popular approach is to set an age at which some form of re-testing is done. The problem is setting the age or conditions at which that is done.

Having a driver's license is a not a right, it is a privilege. We are given one after passing a rudimentary test and, in the vast majority of cases, our ability to drive safely is never again tested or verified for many decades.

If a re-test was mandatory, say every five or 10 years, a system would be in place to identify problems and correct them or remove these people from the road, regardless of age.

But we have a society where individuals feel a driving licence is a right, that any attempt to single out a group by age or other parameter is discrimination. Politicians are well aware of the fact that practically the only group that can be counted on to vote are those at the upper half of the age ranges. Introducing laws that require a mandatory re-test for mature drivers is political suicide.

Having said that, the answer may lie in ensuring impartiality and fairness - and re-testing at an earlier age.

Some jurisdictions have implemented phased-in testing. What if, for example, we were re-tested every 10 years until age 50 or 60 and then every five years until 65 or 70 and then every two years.

The incentive could be insurance rates. Surely the insurance industry would give favourable rates to those proven to be capable of driving safely. They could do this through the savings gained by having unsafe drivers and the resulting expensive claims taken off their books.

But the key is ensuring all drivers get a fair and impartial test. I would propose a variety of tests, or a phased system.

Eyesight, reactions and the ability to process information are the keys to safe driving whether you are 16 or 96 years of age. There are a number of devices available that measure eyesight and reaction times. There are some that can measure our ability to process multiple events in an active situation. Pass these and you can be re-licensed. If you have difficulty with any, an in-vehicle re-test by a properly trained examiner could determine whether the problem was based in age or degeneration or simply one of being intimidated by the test and equipment.

We are approaching a time when the mature driver population is going to reach record levels. Unlike previous generations, these drivers, men and women alike, are accustomed to driving and likely to live longer. Now would be a good time to come up with an approach that allows the majority, who are safe drivers, to continue to do so while weeding out the few that are a problem.

Halifax-based Richard Russell runs a driving school.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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