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driving it home

How do we decide when someone is too old to drive? Or perhaps just too old to drive at night? Or only too old to drive on the highway at any time?

Good questions and the answers matter as the first baby boomers turn 65 this year. To that end, a new national study on licensing policies for older drivers suggests we might have an incipient mess on our hands.

A Canadian research team found that Canada is a regulatory patchwork of requirements "for license renewal, reporting practices," and "appeals processes." As a result, options for restricted licenses largely depend on where someone lives, note researchers, Anita Myers from the University of Waterloo, Brenda Vrkljan from McMaster University and Shawn Marshall from the University of Ottawa.

As is often the case in Canada, the provinces and territories generally disagree on how to identify and regulate older drivers, says a news release, noting the study was funded by the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation and Transport Canada.

Transport Canada data, in fact, shows that in 2009 there were 3.25-million licensed drivers aged 65 and older in Canada. That's 14 per cent of the total driving population, reports the study. Now sit down and consider this: the number of senior drivers is expected to more than double in the next decade.

Said Myers: "While older drivers are involved in proportionately fewer collisions than younger drivers, they are more likely to be seriously injured or die as a result. The rate of fatal collisions starts to rise at age 70 and continues to increase for drivers in their 80s and 90s."

What's the problem with aged and aging drivers? The researchers suggest a greater likelihood of vision and other health problems that may compromise driving safety.

Not all provinces require drivers to undergo a medical review once they turn 70, 75 or 80. To do so is expensive and interestingly enough, says the study, has shown minimal impact on fatalities.

The researchers suggest that experts agree on one thing: "The focus should be on identifying potentially medically-at-risk drivers regardless of age and thoroughly assessing each person's capabilities for continued safe driving."

All well and good, but this means the health care system - doctors - could be facing yet another demand: identifying increasing numbers of older patients with chronic conditions while lacking valid tools to determine fitness-to-drive.

Meanwhile, many seniors want to keep driving; it provides freedom of mobility and such independence is important. At the same time, "Licensing authorities are under pressure to expand restricted licenses for older drivers, comparable to graduated licenses for novice drivers," says the study.

So what should authorities do? Put in place a comprehensive approach to licensing older drivers or something else? Or muddle along and simply do nothing?

Share you thoughts on the comments section of this story.