Discrimination against older drivers has become pervasive, says the chair of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) Sudbury chapter.
“We paint all seniors with the same brush,” said Hugh Kruzel, referring to any accident that involves a person 65 years of age or older.
Kruzel said there are good and bad drivers in every age category, but age is usually only a topic of discussion if the person involved in an accident was elderly.
“The age of the individual is not the issue,” he said.
While some seniors make poor decisions, and continue to drive when they should not, Kruzel said most older people today are more alert and self aware than ever before.
Collision statistics in Ontario would support Kruzel's argument, at least to a certain degree.
“Young men are by far the worst group of any drivers,” said Michel Bédard, a Canada research chair in aging and health at Lakehead University, and the director of the Centre for Research in Safe Driving.
In fact, seniors are in fewer collisions than other age groups. But they also spend less time on the roads.
“If we look at crashes per kilometres – then what we have is called a U-shaped curve,” said Bédard.
In other words, crashes per kilometre driven peak in early adulthood, drop down in middle age, and increase again in old age.
In 2010, Ontario drivers between the ages of 45 and 54 were involved in the most collisions – 73,993 according to the Ontario Road Safety Annual Report for that year.
But that age group represented nearly 16 per cent of Ontario's population in 2010 – the largest proportion for any age group – and spends more time on average driving than other age groups – especially seniors.
People aged 65 and over were responsible for 33,151 vehicle collisions in Ontario in 2010.
That age cohort represented almost 14 per cent of Ontario's population that year, and spent far less time driving, on average, than other groups.
While seniors are in fewer total crashes than other age groups, they are more likely to be killed, or fatally injured than younger people.
“Their physical ability to withstand the traumatic effects of crashes is not as strong as young drivers,” Bédard said.
Allan Dobbs, a researcher who created a driving assessment tool called DriveABLE, said safe drivers should not be determined by age, but by their competency.
“I think we need to separate older drivers from possibly unsafe drivers,” he said. “Most older drivers are safe.”
But older drivers, said Dobbs, are more likely to have medical conditions – such as dementia, lung disease, heart problems and strokes – that can impact their driving ability.
Dementia in particular, said Dobbs, can also affect a person's insight, and how they perceive their own driving ability.
Dobbs said healthy seniors are generally very good at compensating for their driving weaknesses. They often drive slower than other age groups, to compensate for slower reaction time, and avoid driving in poor weather conditions.
But a driver with advanced dementia might not be self-aware enough to compensate for those weaknesses.
DriveABLE uses cognitive tests – using touch screens to test hand-eye co-ordination for example – usually paired with a driving exam, to make recommendations to a person's physician as to whether or not they should keep their licences.
The cognitive tests have been criticized by some researchers, including Bédard, who say they often result in false-positives or false-negatives.
But Dobbs maintains the tests need to be considered as a whole, to represent the different cognitive functions driving involves.
In Ontario, drivers over the age of 80 must have their licences renewed every two years.
After a group evaluation, the evaluator can choose to prescribe further testing – including cognitive tests and road tests – to drivers who appear not to meet safe driving criteria. If they fail those tests, their licences can be revoked.
Bédard said it might make more sense for the province to mandate five-year driving refresher courses for all age groups.
He said driving needs to be thought of as a privelege, not a right.
“We do develop bad habits,” Bédard said. “Crashes are preventable.”