Column: Ontario’s elderly drivers must be monitored more closely

By Tina Depko

A driver’s licence is a privilege for Canadian citizens. Elderly drivers who rely on their vehicles for trips to the grocery store, doctor and pharmacy especially enjoy their mobility.

But what happens when these senior drivers are a threat to others? Elderly drivers can be dangerous because of medical problems and age-related illnesses, such as deteriorating eyesight, and create perilous situations for both pedestrians and drivers.

Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation requires licence holders to undergo medical and drivers’ examinations every two years after they turn 80. This is not good enough to get older, dangerous drivers off the road.

The results of the recent inquest into the death of 42-year-old Beth Kidnie have brought the dormant issue of safety and elderly drivers into the limelight. The mother of three was dragged to death after being struck and caught under the car of Pilar Hicks, 84, on April 4, 2000, in Toronto. While Hicks passed both the required licence examinations, the death of Kidnie is a clear sign unsafe drivers are slipping through the cracks.

The jury at Kidnie’s inquest made several recommendations to the Ministry of Transportation, such as changes to the Highway Traffic Act that would give doctors more responsibility to recognize unsafe elderly drivers. Other suggestions were a media campaign to educate the public on the issue, as well as incentives for driver education like the “55 Alive Mature Driver Program.”

The best recommendation was a graduated delicensing program. The current Ontario licensing system involves a series of steps to achieve a full licence. With every step, the rights are expanded until the final exam is passed. The graduated delicensing program would be the reverse, seeing certain privileges revoked through a series of drivers’ exams.

This system could result in certain restrictions for elderly drivers, such as staying off freeways or only driving during the day. This proposed program would let elderly drivers without medical problems maintain their full licence, while restricting more age-affected drivers.

The starting age for this program has not been suggested, but 65-years-old would be reasonable, as this is already the national designated retirement age and the beginning of the Canada Pension Plan. However, some organizations think this suggestion is anything but reasonable.

The Canadian Association of Retired Persons says using age as the foundation for changes to the licence system is blatant discrimination.

“Our position is that licensing for older drivers has to be based on condition and not age because otherwise it is ageism,” says Judy Cutler, a spokesperson for the association.

“We are just concerned that unnecessarily, seniors’ independence and awareness of themselves as being useful will be stripped ”

Cutler states that if changes are made, they should affect all drivers and not just the elderly.

“We feel that if road safety is the issue then maybe it has to be changed for everyone,” she explains. “A good driver is a good driver and a bad driver is a bad driver at any age and perhaps there should be regular testing every 10 or 15 years for everyone.”

Staff Sgt. Rick Wilhelm of the public safety section of the Ottawa Police Service says the current licence system is adequate.

“I see enough accidents involving seniors and it is not that uncommon,” he says. “But I don’t think that elderly drivers are especially a problem in Ottawa. If they are able to drive and they have control of all their senses and faculties there is no reason they can’t be driving.”

Despite Wilhelm’s opinion, the inquest suggestions are still important and need to be considered. How many people need to die before something is done about unsafe elderly drivers?