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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.

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.”

Why this is a real problem for Nova Scotia

In Stephanie’s case, she lived close enough to her parents to notice the signs, but it’s no secret that the province’s working-age population is leaving in record numbers.

A recent report by The Fraser Institute, a right-leaning think-tank, says the trend isn’t getting any better.

With young people leaving the province, there are and will be fewer people around to check in on and support their aging parents.

Even when adult children stay in the province, more and more are finding homes in urban centers away from the rural areas their parents call home.

Add to that equation the number of Nova Scotians who return to the province to retire after living and raising their families “away,” and there’s even less help for people who suddenly find themselves unable to drive.

Percentage of population over age 80 per postal code area:

With an aging population, the rates of drivers with dementia are also estimated to rise.

By 2031, nearly 30 per cent of people age 65 and older will be living with Alzheimer’s or other dementias, predicts the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada. That means within the next few decades, nearly one in 11 people in Nova Scotia will have Alzheimer’s or dementia, based on population projections from Statistics Canada.

The number of centenarians on Nova Scotia’s roads has nearly tripled in the past few years. In 2014, there were 24 people in Nova Scotia over the age of 100 with an active license, up from 9 in 2007, according to information released by the province.

As an only child, Stephanie had no one else to turn to for help. She had friends – many who were experiencing similar problems with aging loved ones – but no other immediate family around.

At the time, she was also trying to juggle finding what their options were for nursing homes close by or what home care was available.

“It was one of the most stressful things there is,” she said.

How the current system works:

Drivers in Nova Scotia are required to renew their licenses every five years – regardless of age.

At no point, however, are people required to have their vision tested, submit any medical documentation or do any on-road testing to renew their license, unless flagged for a medical reason or due to driving charges, such as impaired or reckless driving.

Instead, the system relies on self-reporting.

If someone has had a change in medical condition, they are legally required to report the change to the RMV. While reporting false information is punishable by a fine, the investigation and enforcement process is essentially non-existent.

There are a few ways someone can be reported to the RMV for medical reasons:

1) A family doctor or psychiatrist who is concerned about a patient’s driving can report the driver to the RMV, outlining medical conditions and his/her recommendations for licensing. The recommendations can range from full suspension to putting conditions on a patient’s driving.

2) An emergency room doctor, similar to a family physician, can report a patient if they have concerns about their driving. Emergency room doctors, however, don’t have as much history with the client and don’t typically provide a lot of detail to the RMV.

3) A police officer can also send a letter to the RMV, but they receive no training for identifying medical issues.

4) A concerned family or community member can report someone to the RMV, but without a history with the driver and enough information the department’s options are limited.

Once a driver is flagged, the Medical Fitness Unit assesses each case individually and will follow up with drivers depending on their specific medical conditions, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. Some provinces follow up with patients with diabetes, but Nova Scotia does not due to a lack of resources, said Bob MacAulay, the RMV’s Medical Fitness Coordinator.

The unit has the ability to ask drivers for a medical assessment by their doctor or an additional road test – the same test done to gain a license. The RMV, however, has no limit on the number of times a driver can take and fail the test.

But, getting drivers into the system has been an issue in the past.

According to a 2011 Auditor General’s report, there was a backlog in processing the complaints. In some cases, medically unfit drivers weren’t notified their license was up for review for as long as three months, and medical documentation deadlines were not enforced, leaving medically unfit drivers on the road.

Paul Arsenault, the Registrar of Motor Vehicles, said the department was understaffed at the time of the report, and has “rearranged its workflow” to address the issue.

He also said if deadlines for medical documentation are missed, the RMV suspends the person’s license.

The University of King’s College, however, was not able to verify if the backlog was cleared up, or how long it currently takes the department to process complaints.

Physicians are the license gatekeepers

When Stephanie ran into her father’s doctor in town one day, she made her concerns about his driving very clear.

His doctor has the same feelings, but still didn’t want to report Stephanie’s father to the RMV. The doctor was worried reporting him would harm the relationship she had with Stephanie’s father, the doctor told her – people don’t tend to like someone who takes away their license, especially when driving is required for daily life.

His doctor wanted to have Bill assessed by a gerontologist instead.

But, it took three months to get an appointment – an eternity for Stephanie, who had daily anxiety about her father being on the road.

Bill’s doctor isn’t alone in her concerns about balancing the doctor/patient relationship and reporting people to the RMV.

Dr. Chris Simpson, a professor at Queen’s University and the president of the Canadian Medical Association, has had the conversation more times than he’d like.

“It’s an extraordinarily difficult task,” he said.

He’s had patients cry, yell at him, become violent and threaten to keep driving anyway.

“I can’t think of a single person who said, ‘Thank you for taking my license away’,” said Simpson.

Balancing a patient’s freedom, independence and future medical care with public safety is a difficult line to walk, he said.

Unlike most other provinces, medical professionals in Nova Scotia are not legally required to report drivers they don’t think are fit to drive to the RMV – the duty to report is considered discretionary.

But if physicians are the main mediators of who is reported to the RMV based on medical grounds, and it’s a duty they don’t necessarily want, identifying people who pose a danger on the road becomes difficult.

“We’re in a profession that’s used to helping and advocating for people,” said Simpson. “And when we’re cast in this role, it’s directly working against that.”

The idea behind the physician reporting system is that doctors interact with patients on a regular basis and are the most capable of identifying medical changes.

In Nova Scotia, 96 per cent of people over the age of 65 have a family doctor, but that rate varies across the province and between age groups, according to Statistics Canada information. On the South Shore, for example, it drops to 89 per cent.

When it comes to people who have actually seen a doctor in the past year, those rates drop even lower.

On average in Nova Scotia, 91 per cent of people over the age of 65 have seen a doctor in the past year, according to Statistics Canada. The number drops to 85 per cent in Colchester-East Hants. Rates for people 80 and older were not available.

Several national studies also suggest that doctors often don’t feel they know enough to recommend taking away someone’s license.

Nova Scotia has a thorough assessment program doctors can refer their patients to if they are unsure, but the program is expensive.

The assessment, which is done by specially trained occupational therapists, includes a physical screening, a reaction test, a cognitive and perception screening and a road test.

The point isn’t to take people off the road, said Jennifer Mason, one of the program’s therapists, but often to find solutions or adjustments that will help keep them safe. Sometimes, it’s not that a driver isn’t capable, it’s that they’ve never been taught how to drive to today’s standards and have developed bad habits.

Watch Jennifer Mason explain some of the tests she uses:

This test is only done in Halifax, and also takes patients from PEI and New Brunswick.

In 2011, the assessment switched to a cost-recovery program, which raised the price from $40 to $440, paid for by the patient.

Before the cost increase, an average of about 200 people went through the program each year. The numbers dwindled in the years after the increase, dropping to 19 in 2012, but they’ve started to recover since: 140 people used the program in 2014.

Arsenault, the Registrar of Motor Vehicles, said there is little evidence to suggest that mandatory systems make doctors report more than discretionary systems. Plus, he said, doctors take an ethical oath, making them ethically obliged to report. He feels the province’s doctors are reporting enough.

When a patient knows certain symptoms could get their license yanked, however, “it encourages them to lie,” said Simpson, giving the example of someone who suffers from seizures, but wouldn’t report it to their doctor for fear of having their license taken away.

“Not only are they still driving,” he said. “But, they’re on inadequate medical therapy as well.”

In provinces that legally require physicians to report, “the doctor is on the hook,” said John McKiggan, a Halifax personal injury lawyer. That creates a legal incentive for doctors to report their patients.

A doctor in Nova Scotia can still be held accountable for failing to report a patient, but making the legal case is much more difficult, he said.

Many provinces also require several other health care professionals – such as occupational therapists, nurses and optometrists – to report drivers they feel could be unsafe to the relevant department.

The Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists publically called for provincial governments to increase the onus of reporting to other health care professionals – not just physicians.

While the report acknowledges that other health care professionals might not feel equipped to make those judgments, the idea “is to widen the opportunity to identify those at risk of unsafe driving.”

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.

Driving is a way of life

Ninety-three-year-old Jerry MacNeil didn’t get his license until he was in his 30s.

“Nobody had cars back then,” he said.

It was just after the Second World War had ended. Young men and women were coming back to try and find jobs, but without any real skills, they were hard to come by.

“I didn’t have the money for a license,” he said.

Jerry 1

Jerry MacNeil, 93, holds up a photo of him in his younger years. He didn’t get his license until he came home from Europe following WWII.

Even when he married his wife, Mary, in 1951, he still didn’t have his license.

They had to take the bus for their honeymoon – they went to Kentville to “stay in the big hotel out there.”

Only a few years later, everyone started getting cars. By 1953, MacNeil found the money to take his driving test, got his license and financed his first car – a 1953 Chevrolet Impala.

Although he and his wife lived in the city, they went everywhere in that car.

They’d take driving vacations to Maine or New Hampshire, sometimes to Montreal or Toronto.

“All long weekends we went up to Cape Breton,” he said. Mary had a brother there, so they’d go to visit.

“You needed a car,” he said.

MacNeil doesn’t need a car now though. Before Mary’s death last year, the couple moved from their home on Novalea Drive, where they lived for 62 years, into The Berkeley, a retirement residence in Halifax’s North End.

MacNeil has walking access to nearly everything he needs – there’s a Lawtons Drug Store and Sobeys across the street, the post office and banks are around the corner, and there are doctors and optometrist offices down the block.

The home also offers exercise classes every morning, a van that takes people for social outings to the Neptune Theatre, local restaurants, and the casino, to name a few. Plus, entertainers frequently come into the building to put on shows.

“I never get the idea that I have to drive a car,” he said. “I can get along without it.”

But his experience isn’t like many others who live in rural areas, where making the transition to more urban, retirement-based communities, isn’t necessarily welcome.

And it’s been a long winter. All the snow and ice on the streets made it hard to get around. Anytime there was entertainment in the home, he was there. If the van had an empty seat, he’d take it. Or he’d hobble, permanently hunched over, through the halls talking to anyone he could.

Even with all that going on, he still finds the days can be long when he’s stuck in one place.

“After dinner is usually the longest,” he said. “Especially since Mary died, and the TV is terrible.”

MacNeil, however, is fortunate that he doesn’t depend on his car. With a veteran’s pension and some foresight, he can afford to live at The Berkeley and was still healthy when a spot opened up.

Despite all that, he still has a car– a 2008 Chevy Malibu that will “last him for life.”

He doesn’t drive often, he said, but it’s there when he needs it.

He usually only uses it to get to church on the weekend and sometimes to visit the group of retirees at the local Tim Horton’s in the morning, he said.

For many people in rural areas, like Bill Hunter, who lives in a part of the province where there is no taxi service, the car is their lifeline.

“The worst thing you can do is sit in your room and look at two walls,” said MacNeil. “The doctor will tell you you’re not going to last long.”

For Bill, nearly everything he needed – groceries, doctor appointments, social get togethers – it all required driving.

But, driving wasn’t just a lifeline; it was also a form of entertainment.

“He loved driving,” said Stephanie. “Everyday the man was on the road just driving everywhere.”

Cars represented something different to MacNeil and Hunter’s generation. Manufacturing them saved the economy, owning one was a source of pride and you could fix it with your own hands.

The decision to stop driving is often so intricately tied to social worth, that giving it up voluntarily is difficult.

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?”

Driving retirement programs

Making the decision to stop driving, for many people, is a major life event.

Seniors who give up driving can face depression, isolation and increased health problems.

For many, driving is a way of life; it is a status symbol.

The car gives freedom. It represents independence.

So getting people to talk about driving retirement isn’t easy.

Beth George, Bridgewater RCMP’s Senior Safety Program Coordinator, who organizes her local seniors driving programs, tried to plan a seminar specifically to help people understand Nova Scotia’s medical assessment system and the local options available for driving retirement.

But this year, not one person signed up.

“It’s like talking about incest,” she said. “Nobody wants to talk about it.”

It’s along the same lines of having that conversation with your kids before they start driving about how you can’t drink and drive, she said – except at the opposite end.

“There’s very few of us who will drive right to the end of our days,” she said.

She wants to get people talking and planning for it before they no longer have a choice.

Different associations and groups across the country have called for reverse graduated licensing systems – to limit people of a certain age from driving at night or on large highways. There have been public discussions about mandatory retirement as well, but people age in different ways at different times, making a universal solution difficult.

Based on the results of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, warnings about driving from physicians have an impact, but it comes at a cost.

A study found that a warning resulted in a 45 per cent decrease in patient visits to the emergency room from a car collision, but increased the amount of visits to the emergency room for depression-related reasons and fewer visits to the doctor.

Some provinces have driving retirement resources, but few have regimented programs. Some have even experimented with implementing incentives for doctors to counsel patients, such as Ontario, which gave physicians a nearly $40 fee for counseling a patient they’re concerned about and reporting them to the RMV.

Ontario is the only province to have a mandatory education program for older drivers, along with cognitive-based screening for people renewing their license starting at age 80. The class includes topics such as high-risk driving situations, driving safety checklists, and good practices to maintain safe driving, as well as specific information about the effects of aging on driving, and driving alternatives.

A group of people on Prince Edward Island recently developed a program, called SPIRIT, in partnership with the provincial motor vehicles branch, to help get people talking about driving retirement.

For now, the program developed a pamphlet that will be put through the highway safety offices across the province, but the group would like to take it directly to local seniors groups, said Mary Brodersen, the program’s ambassador.

No winners, but some losers

If there were an easy solution to determining who is medically safe and unsafe behind the wheel, jurisdictions all over the world would be using it, said Harmon, the PhD student from the University of Michigan.

Science is working on it and academics are getting close, she said, but there are no answers yet.

“No one is right and no one is wrong, but definitely some people are losing in this,” she said.

Compared to many other systems in the country, Nova Scotia’s is falling behind. The province’s population is already one of the oldest in the country and will continue to be, according to population projections. Without the proper safeguards in place and resources available, older drivers will not get the support they need, endangering themselves and others on the road.

Nova Scotia’s Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, Geoff MacLellan, said the province is constantly in talks with colleagues from other provinces about new ideas, but is satisfied with the system the way it is. There is no current plan to change it, he said, but the province is always open to discussion.

At the rate Nova Scotia’s population is aging, it’s not only a public safety issue that can’t be ignored, but it’s also about the safety of the province’s seniors.

Nova Scotia is in a position to be a leader with a creative solution.

The consequences of not hanging up the keys at the right time can sometimes mean the difference between life and death, said Harmon.

Bill Hunter eventually had his license taken away by a substitute doctor – the timing just happened to work out, said Stephanie.

“It was all very difficult and stressful,” she said. She’d like to see some form of mandatory screening, like she’s heard about from her friends in other provinces facing the same issue.

Initially, Bill said it was a “dirty trick” the doctor did, taking away his license like that. He really missed his car.

But, not long after, Stephanie found help in private home care, which Bill’s veteran’s package helps pay for, otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Both Stephanie and her parents couldn’t be happier with the situation now, she said. The home care workers take her parents wherever they need to go – they will even take Bill out just for a drive.

“He thought that was great,” she said. “He didn’t miss the car at all.”

And for Stephanie, it means that her stomach doesn’t drop every time the phone rings, waiting for the news he’d killed himself or someone else.

Since hanging up the keys, Bill’s dementia symptoms kept getting worse. They recently levelled off, said Stephanie, but “if you asked him, he’d still tell you he could drive.”


The reporting, photos/videos, infographics and web design was done by Terra Ciolfe as part of the Masters of Journalism program at the University of King’s College in Halifax.