Driving risk high for seniors

While age doesn’t predict driving ability, on a kilometre-by-kilometre basis, drivers over age 70 have the second highest accident rate per age group in Canada, falling just behind teenage boys, according to a Statistics Canada report.

It’s too easy to conjure up images of an old frail driver who can barely see above the steering wheel. It’s a stigma like many others – one that is often not true.

For the most part, as people age, they are also good at self-regulating.

People stop driving at night, for example, and instead drive during the day at off-peak hours and avoid major highways or urban driving.

Older drivers are also a cautious bunch: they’re less likely to drive distracted, impaired, or at high speed, and more likely to wear a seatbelt.

And they’re getting safer. Older drivers are less likely than previous generations to cause or be injured in collisions, due to a number of reasons, including: safer vehicles, healthier seniors, licensing system changes, better transit systems and an overall decline in traffic fatalities, according to a recent US study.

Despite those trends, however, in 2012 drivers above age 65 died at a higher rate than every other age group on Canada’s roads, according to a recent report by Transport Canada.

But, that’s not the case in Nova Scotia.

People aged 85 to 89 are dying on the province’s roads at a higher rate than any other age group, including teenagers, according to a University of King’s College analysis of five years worth of collision data – a five-year average rate of 24 people per 100,000 licensed drivers of the same age.

Young drivers (aged 16 to 24) have the second highest rate, followed by all other drivers over age 70, based on data from 2008 to 2012.

Age Group Age-specific fatality rate
per 100,000 licensed drivers
85-89 24.0
16-19 22.1
20-24 20.5
80-84 19.3
70-74 13.8
75-79 12.8
90-94 11

Across the country, motor vehicle collisions are also the second leading cause of accidental death for people aged 70 and older, behind fatal falls, according to Statistics Canada data.

The impact of aging on driving is well documented. From vision and mobility issues to hearing and reaction time, driving is a complex task that requires many faculties at the same time.

Cognitive and progressive illnesses are also more likely to impact older drivers.

In 2011, almost 15 per cent of Canadians 65 and older lived with Alzheimer’s or other dementias and after age 65 the risk for dementia doubles every five years, according to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada.

While people can drive in the early stages of the illness, the issue is with the insight people have into their driving ability as the condition progresses.

It was precisely that insight Stephanie’s dad started to lose.

After his dementia diagnosis, he had good and bad days.

“It was just a generally slow decline,” she said.

He had poor overall judgment. He started to lose his short-term memory. He’d drive around trying to remember where he was and where he was going.

“He wears glasses and says he can see, but who knows?” she said. “Everybody was getting concerned about it.”

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