By Wanda Morris
An online survey from State Farm recently made headlines. Based on the experiences of 3,581 participants, the insurance company’s news release raised the alarm that older drivers are unsafe because of their disproportionate representation in automobile crashes causing severe or fatal injuries.
This is misleading. A rear-end collision that gives a younger driver a headache may send an older one to the hospital. Because of the relative frailty of older drivers, a sustained injury is not an objective way to measure the severity of a collision.
We should be concerned about road safety. But road safety policy must be founded on facts, not opinion polls. According to State Farm, 10 per cent of respondents indicated they had been in a collision with someone age 65 or older. This would only be informative if the actual percentage of collisions involving older drivers was disclosed. It wasn’t, so this poll result should never have been published and should now be quickly forgotten.
Equally inappropriate is the idea that we should set arbitrary upper age limits for driving. Telling people to hang up their keys at a certain age is not good policy — it’s ageism.
Does this mean there should be no restrictions on driving? Not at all. But restrictions should be based on people’s ability to drive, not on the year on their birth certificate.
As we age, we lose some of our physical abilities and mental quickness, but we also gain skills from years of practice. Even more importantly, we all age at different rates, some people are old at 50, others complete marathons in their 80s.
Even mandatory testing at certain ages, a program in force in some provinces, can be unreliable. With so much riding on a successful outcome, test-takers may feel unduly stressed, score false negatives and fail even though they are competent drivers.
One possible solution is the use of graduated de-licensing. Just as new drivers face certain restrictions (no more than one passenger, no alcohol) we could implement graduated de-licensing for drivers that are losing their edge.
As drivers age, many already impose their own driving restrictions. Older drivers will often refrain from driving at night, in bad weather, or on major highways.
Making this mandatory for all drivers would be reasonable, provided that the restrictions are tied to limitations that directly impact driving ability — for example, loss of peripheral vision, slower reaction time, or uncorrected vision loss — and are not arbitrarily age-based.
Another option is increased testing for all drivers. I see plenty of drivers, of all ages, whose driving certainly warrants testing — or at least a few lessons. Some provinces use licence renewals to test vision and response times. Why not expand that to include a mini-road test, too? A driver who fails this could be required to take remedial driving lessons and retake the road test within a specific time frame.
Alternatively, we could use tickets and accidents as grounds for prescribing additional driving lessons or tests. Imagine if anyone who was at fault in a car accident, or received a ticket, had to pass mandatory driver training. This would be a simple, objective way to ensure that the drivers who need extra training are getting it — no matter what their age.
Focusing on age limits for drivers ignores the larger issue: far too many Canadians can’t readily access excellent, or even barely adequate, public transit. Many drivers of all ages are in their cars not because they want to be there, but because there are no reasonable alternatives.
Instead of scapegoating older drivers, we must invest in public transit. Excellent transit makes for livable cities, improved traffic and fewer fatalities. Now that’s a solution for the ages.
Wanda Morris is the VP of Advocacy for CARP, a 300,000 member national, non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for financial security, improved health-care and freedom from ageism for Canadians as we age. Send questions to [email protected]. To join CARP or learn more, call 1-800-363-9736 or visit carp.ca