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Wresting the wheel from seniors a tough task

The RCMP are still investigating why a 71-year-old man plowed his pick-up truck through a Sikh wedding procession in Abbotsford, B.C., late Friday - killing six and injuring 17 - but there is one glaring factor they won't ignore: the driver's age.

Canadians over the age of 65 account for just over 15 per cent of auto fatalities, according to Transport Canada, while drivers over 75 cause more accidents per kilometre than their 16-year-old grandchildren.

For many families, it's an all-too familiar dilemma: what to do when you suspect a family member is too old to drive?

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Driving can play an important role in seniors' identities, researchers say, and confronting them about declining driving skills can be difficult.

"The last time a patient yelled at me, it was over driving issues," said Kenneth Rockwood, a professor of geriatric medicine at Dalhousie University. "It's a very emotional issue and it's one we see a lot."

In most provinces, seniors undergo special testing to keep their licences, but the majority of those tests involve only a medical exam. In Ontario, which has the most stringent regulations in the country, those over 80 must pass both a written and a road test.

But when their faculties begin to fail, families and doctors may have a difficult time wrestling the elderly from behind the wheel. And with the country's exploding population of seniors, the problem is about to become more heated.

"It's a very difficult issue for seniors," said Allen Dobbs, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Alberta who now runs DriveABLE a cross-country network of driver testing centres that specialize in elderly motorists.

"Most refuse to understand that they have a driving problem."

Just over a decade ago, Dr. Dobbs researched the tendencies of elderly drivers and found that they most often made errors during moments of stressful decision making: changing lanes, making left turns and merging into highway traffic.

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The Edmonton office of DriveABLE now tests over 400 seniors a year, most of whom are referred by a doctor. Nearly one-third of them fail a written test before they are even ready for a road test.

During the test, drivers steer through a number of scenarios that focus on quick decision-making abilities. Even when a driver is guilty of taking the test car the wrong way down a freeway or turning left on a red light, most seniors will deny they've done anything wrong.

"Many of them will deny it outright," Dr. Dobbs said. "Telling them this kind of thing is very difficult. Losing that driver's seat can be a very public marker of cognitive decline."

For many seniors, a driver's licence has both a practical and symbolic value. It both permits them to live a mobile life and shows they are a "functioning, healthy member of society," according to Dr. Dobbs. "When it's lost, you're no longer part of that group. It can be devastating."

Physical and mental decline among seniors can happen suddenly. Doctors stress that it's incumbent upon family members to tackle the problem as soon as there's a worry.

"Don't ignore it." said Bonnie Dobbs, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Alberta and Dr. Dobbs' wife, who runs support groups for seniors who've had their licences taken away. "It'll be a tough conversation. Taking someone's licence away can have very negative consequences on their self-worth. But it has to be done."

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If an elderly relative refuses to listen to family members, she advises having a physician talk to them. "A message straight from a doctor is taken more seriously than from anyone else."

She notes that people with mild dementia are up to eight times as likely to be involved in automobile accidents than other people their age.

"It's a difficult conversation to have, but it's easier than dealing with the consequences of an accident."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More


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