No checks on drivers once licensed

When U.S. native John Fennell followed his Cape Bretoner wife back to Nova Scotia, he was surprised at how little testing he had to do to keep his license.

He’s lived in multiple states across the southern U.S. and always had to do some form of testing to keep his license, whether it was a vision test or a depth perception test, he said.

Now that he’s 73-years-old, he’s concerned for a different reason.

John Fennell thinks NS should have more screening for license renewals.

John Fennell thinks Nova Scotia should have more screening for license renewals.

“I think parts are starting to fall off,” Fennell said.

His night vision isn’t very good anymore, he said, so he tries not to drive at night. He catches himself missing things sometimes, but he feels he’s still safe behind the wheel.

“I told my kids and I told my wife, if you ever think my driving is bad, you tell me and I’ll dump my license that day,” he said.

He’s also watched family members get behind the wheel when he thinks they shouldn’t and he doesn’t want to be like that, he said.

He thinks and has written about how there should at least be vision tests required for everyone when they renew their license, not just older drivers.

The Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, an organization of Canada’s provincial and territorial transportation authorities, wants to harmonize licensing standards across the country, and has created a model set of standards for assessing driver fitness. The system includes age-based screening to identify people who may be unfit to drive.

Aging, the report notes, is associated with increased risks for multiple medical conditions that impair driving, including visual impairments, cardiovascular disease and cognitive impairments, such as dementia. Not only can medications used to treat these illnesses affect somebody’s ability to drive, the report continues, but also “there is a particularly strong association between cognitive impairment and dementia and impaired driving performance.”

The model system for non-commercial drivers includes a review of driver fitness starting at age 75 or 80, and repeating every two years after.

Several provinces have instituted their own screening and testing measures for older adults.

Alberta requires documentation of a medical assessment in order to renew a driver’s license starting at age 75, then again at 80 and every two years afterwards.

British Columbia requires the same documentation, but starting at age 80 and every two years after. Newfoundland and Labrador has a similar system. Ontario recently changed its licensing requirements for older drivers from a written test to a cognitive-based test, vision test, driving record review, a mandatory education session, and possibly a road test.

But the requirements haven’t had a lot of support. Albertan seniors took their protests to the legislature, and the British Columbia branch of The Canadian Association of Retired Persons asked the B.C. Justice Minster to scrap the testing all together, calling the it ageist and discriminatory.

Michel Bédard, director of the Centre for Research on Safe Driving at Lakehead University, isn’t a fan of age-based testing.

“There isn’t a heck of a lot of evidence that having regular testing actually makes a difference,” he said.

People either lose their license when they shouldn’t, or have to go for more testing, which can be costly and stressful.

Driving is a complex task that requires many different skills and no reliable test exists to predict who is a hazard and who isn’t, he said.

“Without those tools, it’s difficult to make good decisions,” said Bédard.

He pointed to a 1996 study in Finland and Sweden where the country that instituted age-based testing had an increase in senior pedestrian fatalities, without any real increase to road safety.

Bédard is leading CanDRIVE, a long-term study aimed at “improving the safety and quality of life of older drivers.”

Funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the goal is to develop a tool that will help identify older drivers who might need further assessment.

But the team is still collecting information and doesn’t expect to have any solid findings for another few years.

For the meantime, Bédard said, “it’s not like older people are this big menace to society.”

Young men are the most dangerous on the road, but we don’t make them go through testing, he continued.

Annie Harmon, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, who’s focused on driver-screening training programs, agrees with Bédard.

“Some people feel there are clear answers sometimes because it makes them feel better to say, ‘Let’s take everyone who’s 80 and older off the road’,” she said.

Taking someone off the road has many unintended consequences, not just for older drivers – who are community volunteers, grandparents and baby-sitters – but also for their extended families and local economies, said Harmon.

“It’s a complicated, uncomfortable subject and when people don’t know what to do, they either ignore them or try to over simplify them,” said Harmon.

The balance between what the sciences can prove and the need to make effective and responsible public policy has always been a delicate dance, and science isn’t exactly known for being fast.

Age-based testing and screening doesn’t have to be punitive, said Brenda Vrkljan, a professor at the School of Rehabilitative Science at McMaster University.

“[The point] isn’t to screen people because we want to take something away, it’s because we want to enable them to make sure they have the supports in place to make sure they’re safe,” she said.

The screening process can lead to positive interventions that make drivers safer on the road, such as equipment to make it easier to steer the car or reach the foot pedals.

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