Safe driving courses miss the mark

In Bill Hunter and Jerry MacNeil’s days, getting a license was typically a simple process. You had a visit with the local mechanic, who had either watched you drive your father’s tractor, or you drove a car around the block. There was no graduated licensing system, no young drivers education, no Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

So for seniors who find themselves on new road systems, having to take a modern road test, or navigating a new road technology, such as a roundabout, it can be a confusing experience.

The Nova Scotia government hasn’t turned a blind eye to the safety of older drivers. In 2001, the province announced a $40 rebate to eligible seniors who signed up for a driver refresher course.

In the eight years the program has been running, about 2,000 seniors – an average of 250 people per year – have signed up for lessons, costing the government slightly more than $77,000, according to the province.

But considering there were more than 146,000 people over age 65 with a license in 2014 alone, the lessons are not even reaching one per cent of the eligible population.

While safe driving classes for older drivers are offered across the province, there’s no required curriculum, making the lessons in Cape Breton potentially quite different from those in Yarmouth.

The lack of required lessons can also work to a region’s advantage.

Recently in Annapolis County, there were a few new roundabouts added in town that caused a bit of confusion, said Sharon Elliott, the RCMP Senior Safety Program coordinator for the region. So, they talked about it in class.

Elliott, however, says most of the people taking the class are already conscientious drivers, who, for the most part, know what they’re doing.

“They like confirming that they’re doing it right,” she said.

Occasionally, they’ll also get drivers who have been flagged by the RMV for review and are looking for a refreshment course, but those aren’t common.

While there’s a lot of interest, there’s also a lot of apprehension, she said.

Sometimes older drivers can fear just taking a refresher course.

“They feel they are under the driving spotlight,” she said. “If they make one error, [they’re scared] that they’re going to lose their license.”

Michelle Parker, the RCMP Senior Safety Program Coordinator in Kings County, usually talks about driving retirement as part of the lessons, and she tries to help older drivers find aids or alternatives that work for them.

One older woman she helped had “horrendous” night vision. The woman knew her vision wasn’t good and she tried not to drive too much at night, said Parker, but often the sunset would sneak up on her and she’d find herself in the dark. Concerned community members had called the police on her twice, thinking she was a drunk driver.

The woman and Parker found alternative transportation for her when she needed to be out at night, got her a new pair of prescription glasses and a special pair of glasses for night driving.

Parker tries to help find different arrangements for people they know about, but she can’t reach everyone.

“I believe there are lots of people out there driving who probably shouldn’t and people know them,” said Parker. “But, what’s going to happen when they can’t drive? Who’s going to be able to run their errands for them? What exists?”

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