Don’t penalize older drivers
By Steve Wallace, Times Colonist May 5th, 2015
Are government-ordered driving tests for the elderly unfair? Many seniors’ organizations believe so, as do some professional instructors. Steve Wallace, who runs the Joan Wallace Driving School and writes a column on driving for the Times Colonist, stirred up a debate when he told a journalist: “I could test you tomorrow and you would fail.” Wallace was as good as his word. The journalist, a one-time taxi driver in his 50s, took the test and failed.
There are two questions here: Are the tests themselves fair? And on a broader level, is it justifiable to impose this burden on seniors?
There are good reasons for believing the answer to the first of these questions is no. The process works like this. Once drivers reach 80, they are required by law to have a full physical every two years, conducted by a doctor.
Some of the ground covered, such as eyesight, is uncontroversial. Vision problems are a legitimate concern.
But a full physical, covering cardiovascular health, respiratory status, endocrine function and so on, can look more like intimidation.
Nevertheless, if the doctor sees a problem, he or she must advise RoadSafetyBC, the agency that oversees driver licensing. At that point, the agency can either yank a licence entirely or send the driver for other tests.
If cognitive impairment is suspected, the person can be sent for a computer-based assessment. This test, called DriveABLE, has been widely criticized.
Many older drivers, unfamiliar with computers, struggle with the technology and find the hour-long exam exhausting. In addition, critics say the software has a history of diagnosing cognitive impairment where none exists.
Seniors who fail the DriveABLE assessment (and most do) may request a road test. Here, Wallace’s maxim applies: Examiners can flunk anyone. Nerves play a part; even younger drivers get flustered.
In short, the process seems rigged, particularly against the elderly.
Now the larger issue: Why employ such a punitive approach in the first place?
The last two or three decades have seen wide-reaching efforts to make our society more open and accepting. We’ve stigmatized discrimination in all its forms. We’ve broken down physical barriers to people with handicaps.
In every other instance of diminished capability, we’ve gone overboard to reduce and mitigate the burden. As we should.
So why, particularly in a greying society where ever more of us are getting on, do we throw away the keys?
To keep our roads safe, is the obvious answer. But is there any evidence that we’re doing so?
At best, the accident statistics are ambiguous. Certainly, older drivers have fewer accidents than do young ones.
Nevertheless, if road safety is the issue, why not examine that? The Insurance Corp. of B.C. maintains each driver’s record on file. If an elderly motorist is getting into difficulties, the file should show it.
There can be no objection to yanking a licence where there is clear evidence of unsafe road behaviour. Yet this approach only serves to highlight the unfair nature of the present system. Isn’t a lifetime driving record a better indication of competence than a one-hour computer assessment?
There is, of course, a middle road. Some elderly motorists are granted restricted licences, meaning they can drive only during daylight hours or on roads with reduced speed limits.
This approach is more in keeping with society’s desire to empower, rather than sideline, those with physical challenges. It also recognizes another emerging reality.
On average, an 80-year-old today is healthier than a 70-year-old two generations ago. And they will become far more numerous. Octogenarians will reach 10 per cent of the population by 2060.
Removing their mobility and confining them to virtual imprisonment in their homes is not acceptable.
Surely, RoadSafetyBC can find a more humane solution.