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Tip line hits a road block

The North East Dementia Network really was trying to help when it teamed up with law enforcement to create a tip line specifically to report senior drivers.
The North East Dementia Network really was trying to help when it teamed up with law enforcement to create a tip line specifically to report senior drivers.

Their stated intentions are admirable — provide a program that allows seniors to drive longer, while getting off the road those whose driving ability makes them potentially dangerous.

Unfortunately, neither the dementia network, the Greater Sudbury Police Service nor Crime Stoppers put enough thought into how the program would be perceived by those they were trying to help.

Seniors feared big burly cops were going to show up at their homes to take their licences away, that they had eyes on them at all times.

Their roll out of the program was clunky, poorly explained and poorly implemented. Officials didn’t tell their target population what it was, exactly, they were trying to do or how they were going to do it and the real mechanics of the program — which made every effort to be sensitive — got lost in the backlash.

And they paid the price for it. The story went national and Police Chief Frank Elsner ended up apologizing that the purpose of the tip line wasn’t made clearer.

Driving equals autonomy, regardless of age. And seniors, perhaps quite rightly, see the tip line as an excuse to target a particular demographic whose driving ability is often fodder for cliched jokes.

The driving aptitude of women and Asian people is also the stuff of gibes, but no one has suggested a tip line for them.

But is the tip line ageism? Is it discriminatory? Not intentionally. The dementia network and the GSPS were trying to fill what many see as a gap in the licence renewal process for older drivers.

The tip line certainly singles out a segment of the population for particular attention. And by fielding calls through Crime Stoppers, it definitely gives the appearance that senior drivers are doing something wrong, which, by and large, they are not.

The rub is, the statistics are pretty clear that some senior drivers, particularly those over age 70, get into crashes with almost as much frequency as those aged 16 to 25.

The difference is, those young drivers, whose collision rates can be chalked up to inexperience, become safer as they age, while seniors, whose collision rates are more linked to physical ability, become worse.

And with long-lived Baby Boomers making Canada’s senior population one of the fastest growing demographics — and the fastest growing driving population — the issue of how to keep seniors on the road for as long as possible as safely as possible is not going away.

Senior government officials know this and in 2002 initiated the Canadian Driving Research Initiative for Vehicular Safety in the Elderly (Candrive), an interdisciplinary health-related research program dedicated to improving the safety of older drivers.

In Ontario, after age 80, drivers must take a three-hour written test every two years to renew. What’s more, family doctors are responsible for notifying officials if one of their patients has a condition that could impact their ability to drive, something officials say doctors aren’t doing with enough regularity.

Doctors themselves say they are reluctant to make those notifications.

That reluctance is not solely because that conversation can be uncomfortable to have, but also because, according to Candrive, doctors lack fair and accurate in-office screening tools to determine driving fitness. If you can’t trust the test, how can you trust the results?

This is where the dementia network’s plan hit a tree. By relying on anonymous tipsters — even if those tipsters are well-meaning family members — instead of objective testing, they made it personal and made seniors feel targeted.

That is not to say that the system should not be adapted to deal with the coming bubble of older drivers. That must happen. In 2011, some five million Canadians were 65 or older. That number is expected to hit 10.4 million in 25 years. About one-in-four Canadians is expected to be 65 or over by 2051.

But adapting the system must be done sensitively with the full knowledge and co-operation of those it is being designed to help.

If you’re going to take away someone’s sense of freedom, a cop showing up at the door armed with a complaint and a clipboard is not the way to do it.