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Ask Joanne

You can teach an 80-year-old driver new tricks Add to ...

I’m turning 80 next year and I’m thinking of taking some refresher driving lessons to make sure I’m still up to par. I know taking the lessons is the right thing to do, but will they report me if my performance isn’t acceptable? – Marjorie in Nanaimo

While I do believe that in many respects you’re only as old as you feel, it’s wise at any age to know your limits and make sure you’re confident with your driving skills.

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Forming bad habits is not just limited to “mature” drivers. Your pro-active approach – not waiting until something devastating or irreversible occurs – is commendable. It can’t be denied that our cognitive abilities and motor skills decrease over time. As you get older, for your own safety, it’s wise to check more often to make sure you’re fit to drive safely.

Many driving schools offer programs that assess and help improve the cognitive skills needed most for safe driving. With a twist of irony, the Young Drivers of Canada driver training school, for example, runs a CogniFit course tailored specifically for seniors. “It’s a series of tests for risk assessment, hand-eye co-ordination, and a number of different skills. The more you do them, the more your marks will go up, because you’re actively working on it,” says Kelly Calar, general manager with Young Drivers in Vancouver.

“It’s been proven that you can improve cognitively, at any age. A lot of research has been done with senior groups. If you’re being pro-active, you can always increase your motor skills and cognitive awareness. If you’re not living an active lifestyle, your cognitive skills will decrease slowly over time. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it,” says Calar.

Why not complete a driver assessment and find out where you stand? “We offer a 90-minute driver evaluation in which we go through a series of stop signs, right turns, lights, and so on. It’s not a road test, but it involves similar situations. Then we make recommendations and start working on the skills, and give drivers the tools so they can practise,” says Calar.

So, what happens if your driving performance is poor? All the instructors I spoke with were unanimous in their response: “If we assess the client and find they are not a safe driver, we will let them know.”

If you’re going for a refresher course, remember, the driving instructors are there to help you. They want to keep drivers and passengers safely on the road. I’d be more concerned about what could happen if you choose not to brush up your skills.

As far as being “reported” to the motoring authorities, only medical doctors are required to report patients who aren’t fit to drive for health reasons. However, anyone – friends, family members, neighbours, or the driving instructors – can write a letter (also known as a driver fitness report) suggesting a certain driver be evaluated and outlining their reasons for concern.

In your home province of British Columbia, these reports go to the Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles (OSMV). The OSMV makes an assessment, which includes looking at the driver’s record, and then retesting may be ordered. Remember, it’s not one strike and you’re out.

“When that happens, and this is the part which I think confuses and frightens people, they’re not saying right away that you can’t drive any more. They’re saying ‘we want you to prove that you’re still aware, and a safe driver on the road’, ” says Calar.

Driving privileges are removed if a candidate is unsuccessful at passing after three road-test attempts.

Remember, if this were to occur, you have an opportunity to take lessons, and enroll in a course to brush up on your cognitive skills before taking a road test.

“This woman is not alone; many people are afraid to ask about refreshing their skills because they’re worried they might be flagged. That fear is because ... they don’t understand the process,” says Calar.

If you’re not completely confident with your driving skills at any age, it’s a good idea to seek a professional opinion, and remedial training. You may only be driving to the local coffee shop or grocery store, but remember, accidents can happen at any time. Your number one concern should be that you don’t endanger yourself or others on the road.

E-Mail your automotive-related questions to Ask Joanne at globedrive@globeandmail.com

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