On April 21 in Ontario, new changes to the licence testing for people aged 80-and-over will take effect. The Ministry of Transportation's new evaluation includes a vision assessment, in-class group education, review of the driver's record and two short exercises, the latter to determine if further assessment is required.
The big change is with the two exercises (click on the link to the left), that require drivers to draw the hands of a clock to 11:10, and to cross out each "H" from rows of letters. They are designed to evaluate basic auditory language skills, memory, motor functioning, and ability to plan and organize.
Dr. Louisa Gembora, an independent clinical psychologist specializing in rehabilitation and a driving instructor, says: "The clock drawing exercise seems simplistic, but it's reliable and viable – we've used it for many years, providing the evidence to implement it."
There is predictable anger among seniors who mistake a driver's licence with a membership-for-life card, or who understandably believe clean driving records should speak amply on their behalf.
"It's rank discrimination," Tom Trent, 84, of Kichener, Ont., wrote to me after the MTO announced the changes to reassess drivers when they hit 80.
The new evaluation procedure came from years of work with CANDRIVE, an interdisciplinary group of researchers seeking to keep the elderly driving safely. Brenda Vrkljan, assistant professor with McMaster Univeristy's School of Rehabilitation Science and a member of the CANDRIVE team, says the ministry is embracing the organization's work.
The test determines how your brain is actually working, rather than how you may make yourself appear to be functioning for a short time period.
"We put our best self forward in a test, but cognitive tests like the ones now included will reveal gaps that can be missed," Vrkljan says. "We are constantly looking for evidence-based, fair testing that protects the individual as well as public safety."
Is the government coming after Tom and his friends? Is there a conspiratorial movement to strip older driver of freedom and independence?
My mother passed a crash scene 40 years ago. The sight of the boy's backpack lying on the ground haunted her. An elderly driver had hopped a curb and pinned a young pedestrian to a fence with his vehicle. The lad lost his leg. The old man was in shock, declaring he'd never seen him, never seen the curb. It happened on the route I took home from school. .
Impaired vision, dementia and failing cognitive skills affect an individual's ability to drive. Choosing to evaluate drivers as they age is evidence-based. Statistics Canada reports that drivers over 70, when adjusted for miles driven, rank second in percentage of crashes only to those the wild teenage boys we hear so much about. And it's the seniors who are more likely to die.
Presently, Ontario requires doctors to report patients whom they believe to have diminished competence behind the wheel due to medical conditions or prescriptions . Alberta requires medical exams beginning at aged 75, and anyone can report a driver they believe to be dangerous. B.C. stipulates medical exams as a condition of renewal starting at age 80. Saskatchewan has a gradual delicencing for compromised drivers, based on times driven, distance and time of day. The AAA motor club in the U.S. says, "Seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of seven to 10 years."
I called Tom back, explained the changes, and said the test was a better, fairer judge of cognitive ability. Discrimination, based on age? Yes, but it's predicated on evidence. At 90 minutes, the test takes half the time of the old one and is a far better measure of a senior's ability to handle a car.
Correction: Alberta requires medical exams from drivers once they are 75 years old. A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that they are required from drivers over 65.
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