Failure to Yield

How Nova Scotia’s licensing system is failing older drivers

On an early May day in 2013, 88-year-old Bill Hunter woke up behind the wheel on the wrong side of the road, his car in a pile of trash cans.

He told his daughter it wasn’t his fault; the kids at the school across the street were pointing lasers at him.

It was days before he had been scheduled to see a geriatrician about whether he should be on the road – an appointment he had just cancelled – and was barely a week after he drove through a crosswalk in town, narrowly missing a pedestrian.

“I didn’t know what to do,” said Stephanie about the situation. “He didn’t think anything was wrong with him.”

Bill has dementia. His doctor knew, his daughter watched his decline, but she felt alone in her quest to get him off the road before it was too late.

He is among a growing number of seniors in Nova Scotia who hold onto their licenses into their golden years.

When it comes to licensing practices Nova Scotia’s current system lags behind other provinces.

A University of King’s College investigation found that Nova Scotia’s system may leave unsafe drivers on the road and older drivers without the help they need.

As the province population continues to age, the number of seniors on the roads will rise, making the need for an effective licensing system even more urgent.

Bill’s doctor didn’t want to report him to the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) because she didn’t want to harm their relationship. The police told Stephanie their hands were tied without a complaint or an actual incident.

Stephanie thought about hiding her dad’s keys, but knew it would confuse him and make the situation worse. When she tried to bring up the topic, he’d get angry. He’d yell.

“I felt like nobody was going to help me,” she said.

Stephanie and Bill are not their real names. Stephanie asked for anonymity because her father still doesn’t know how far she had to go to get him off the road – and she doesn’t want him to.

She isn’t alone in her experience, and if the proper checks aren’t put in place, her story could become a lot more common as the province’s population continues to age.

Among the findings of the investigation:

  1. Doctor reporting is discretionary: Doctors and psychiatrists are not legally required to report patients who might be medically unfit to drive to the RMV, unlike in many other provinces.
  2. No follow up once licensed: Unlike other jurisdictions, Nova Scotia doesn’t require any testing – at any age – to renew a driver’s license. Many provinces require medical screening for drivers past a certain age.
  3. Driving lessons for seniors miss the mark: Nova Scotia offers rebates for seniors driving lessons, but there is no required curriculum and limited oversight. The program educates less than an estimated one per cent of the eligible population per year, based on numbers provided by the province.