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When should seniors stop driving?

It may be time for a GDP, a graduated de-licensing program, so seniors and the public can stay safe on the roads.

Most senior drivers self-regulate. Many don’t drive at night, and when they don’t feel comfortable, for whatever reason, they make a logical decision not to drive.

All things considered, when is it appropriate for a senior to relinquish their driving privilege?

The decision is best made in consultation with a medical professional, family, friends and a driver-education specialist.

Most seniors stop driving because of a physical or mental impairment. Good vision is the prime necessity for every driver.

Seniors often have a reduced field of vision, namely a loss of peripheral vision. This is a natural part of the aging process. There are techniques that seniors can learn that will allow them to continue driving safely.

When there is an obvious problem seeing the hazards, signs and traffic lights, it is time to take the bus or taxi or rely on family and friends for rides. I will never forget the time I showed up to do a senior driving assessment, only to find that the candidate, while driving on a minor highway, mistook two dogs tearing apart a green garbage bag, in the middle of the road, for children playing. The drive ended then and there. A subsequent eye test showed the person to be legally blind.

The most common visual problem faced by seniors is the inability to clearly see the speedometer. On several occasions, seniors who were unable to clearly see the speedometer simply followed other drivers in a mock convoy fashion. This is unacceptable. Newer vehicles have big digital speedometer readings. This will often solve the problem of speedometer visibility.

The strategic placing of bright coloured dots on an analog speedometer also works well for some seniors.

Reaction time is a big factor in the driving task. Many seniors are unable to properly perceive and predict road hazards. Cognitive impairment is probably the biggest reason for ending an elderly person’s driving career. There are all sorts of people who drive well into their 80s and even their 90s. But conditions such as dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s will eventually lead to the loss of a driver’s licence. Many people who have such health problems drive well in the initial stages of their illness. The question is not if driving will be discontinued, but when. Some severe physical problems, such as arthritis, strokes and a general lack of co-ordination make it impossible to control a vehicle.

This makes for a very easy decision to halt driving. Several years ago it was possible for seniors to acquiesce, when regulatory restrictions were enforced. It was acceptable for a self imposed 60/60 restriction to be placed on a B.C. senior driver’s licence.

Speed was restricted to no faster than 60 km/h. No travel was permitted past a 60-kilometre radius from the senior’s residence. This system seemed to satisfy the needs of seniors and the community. It was discontinued because of constant abuse and enforcement difficulties. We now have an all or nothing licensing system.

Perhaps it is time for a GDP, namely a graduated de-licensing program. We could make it voluntary or mandatory. After all, we have a GLP, a graduated licensing program for new drivers. Food for thought?

Steve Wallace is a member of the College of Teachers and the owner of Joan Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island and the Interior of B.C.

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