Seniors and Driving

What to know about this topic:

In the Comfort Life Spotlight

Editor's note -- this article is from 2010

It’s an issue that keeps cropping up and will remain prominent with our aging population: how do we properly regulate seniors and driving? Many baby boomers are concerned about their aging parents’ ability to navigate increasingly busy roadways. Or perhaps they look ahead to their own senior years, knowing that they will not want to be restricted from "getting around."

Some horror stories (from 2010)

We have all heard horror stories. An 86-year-old California man lost control of his vehicle, possibly mistaking his accelerator for the brake and drove through a farmers’ market killing ten people. An 84-year-old woman in Ottawa lost control of her car and smashed into a bus shelter, killing a woman inside. In Montreal, a 74-year-old man plowed into a group of people, killing two and injuring seven others. In a well-publicized case, an 84-year-old Toronto woman killed a mother of three by dragging her for nearly a kilometer.

Who’s responsible for regulating senior drivers?

Seniors’ groups and other defenders resent that these cases have become flashpoints for sweeping statements about senior drivers. They charge that there is never any cry to remove people in their 20’s from the roads every time there is a street racing accident involving people that age. As Ottawa retiree Jean Hoganson argues, the simplest way to handle the problem is to leave the decision up to doctors.

However, doctors are busy with other issues. As one doctor notes, "only a fraction of seniors see their doctor regularly. Decreasing vision may be an embarrassment to some people and they may want to avoid having that diagnosed."

Many people assume that the government monitors the issue of seniors and driving. This is a mistaken assumption. In fact, Transport Canada works with guidelines from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) designed to better accommodate elderly drivers. The guidelines address items from intersection angles to highway and street lighting to sign placement and readability.

According to law, regulation of older drivers is up to each of the provinces. And different provinces deal with the issue differently, of course. Taking a look at how this is done, you could question whether regulation is really strict enough anywhere.

For example, in Ontario, license renewal regulations change for those over 80. Licenses come up for renewal every two years, shortened from the usual five-year period. Read more about the MTO's policies about seniors and license renewal.

Most of the prairie provinces have little or nothing to say on the subject of senior drivers while Alberta offers senior safe driving tips – and that’s about all (they offer booklets and information on ‘self assessment.’) Alberta, along with BC, Quebec, Newfoundland, the Yukon and Northwest Territories require drivers 80 and over to provide a medical report every two years.

However, none of these provinces or territories require driver testing.

So for the most part you’re on your own in determining the safety of your senior parents’ driving. And as reported in a US survey last year, you’re likely to feel more comfortable talking to your parents about funeral plans than about taking away their car keys.

There is some hope offered by new technology that makes driving safer for seniors.

Technology helps seniors keep driving

In a study from England released earlier this year, seniors agreed that the ability to drive was an integral component of their lifestyle and they could not do without the independence. The survey also found that seniors would embrace "technology that would enhance feedback from the road but leave them in control of the vehicle."

Indeed, recent changes already make it easier for senior drivers. These continue to be improved upon, including:

A wealth of technology new to the market in recent years can be used to help seniors on the road. The Global Positioning System GPS) has the ability to map out road hazards and could be used to magnify, display or otherwise communicate local road sign information so that seniors’ (and others') eyes never need leave the road.

Audio feedback of the car’s speed can be played back, where different musical tones indicated different driving speeds.

Automakers get involved in safety

There are also initiatives being put forth by the some manufacturers in the auto industry who understand they have a vested interest in keeping senior drivers on the road.

Researchers are General Motors Corp. are considering designs for a windshield that incorporates lasers, infrared sensors and cameras to create an enhanced experience of what is happening around the car. For example, a laser can be projected onto the windshield to indicate where the side of the road is in foggy conditions. Infrared can detect animals or people in the path of the car.

Users (i.e. senior drivers) would be able to control the amount and kind of information displayed in order to better their driving experience.

Young designers at Ford Motor Company and Nissan/Infiniti use special suits that simulate the mobility and vision limitations of aged drivers in order to test models and build with them in mind.

Toyota offers seats that swivel and rotate outward since the biggest problem for aging drivers is getting in and out of their vehicles. Changes that help older drivers also benefit all of us. For example, keyless entry was developed with older drivers in mind but was seen to have safety and other benefits for many others.

To one extent or another, all the major auto/mobile manufacturers are preparing for the increasing population of seniors behind the wheel. By 2030 one in five people in the US will be 65 and older.

But Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also the New England Transportation Center, says that automakers still have a "long way to go."

Other solutions to the issue

While all this provides hope for improvements to driving now and in the future, there are many people who may simply need to approach their parents about whether or not they really should still be driving.

In some cases the best solution is to find your parents a retirement home. Barbara Friesner of reports that children of seniors find their parents surprised by the freedoms offered by retirement home living. Seniors come to realize that today's retirement homes are very different from traditional stereotypes. Friesner offers advice on ways for children of seniors to remain calm during this difficult discussion.

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