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John Ducker: How to know when it's time to hang up the keys

In your 70s and onward, you are more likely to be involved in a crash than any other age group, except those who are 25 and younger
Naomi Coale participates in a series of tests on elderly drivers, such as this computer test to see how distracting background information is at a retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. Among the warning signs that it's time to quit driving are high insurance costs due to accumulation of driving points and collisions, writes John Ducker. GEORGE BRIDGES, KRT

I knew something was up with the car in front of me the other day.

It was clear and dry and there wasn’t much traffic but we were doing 40 to 45 km/h and then suddenly down to 25 to 30.

Coming to a red light, the car stopped over the crosswalk, nose jutting slightly into the intersection. The light went green. Nothing happened.

Three to four seconds later it pulled away abruptly — turning left but heading towards the right hand curb — then correcting too much to the left and crossing slightly over the centre line.

The pattern of slowing to 25 to 30 followed by a sudden jump back up to 50 continued for several more blocks as did several crossovers of the centre line. When the road finally changed into two lanes I was able to pull alongside.

The driver was a woman, perhaps in her late eighties. She clung to the top of the steering wheel, looking uncomfortable, even nervous.

The light went green and I pulled away. She was still sitting there looking straight ahead at the same light I had just moved through. Finally, she moved off — quickly at first then back to real slow.

I can’t say for sure, but she didn’t look drunk or distracted. Whatever was going on in that car, the woman was at — and probably beyond — the limits of her driving ability.

It’s a touchy question, especially in this region, about the rights and responsibilities of elderly drivers.

The car is the ultimate form of mobility in our society and denying a person the ability to drive is life altering.

In family terms, we’re lucky if a senior relative recognizes that they should no longer be on the road, but that doesn’t always happen. Everyone has known a senior who has no idea about their current driving ability and often is in outright denial of the problem.

On the other side of the coin, there are seniors who drive better than many young people and it is the family who push, sometimes unjustly, to remove them from the road. I’ve known of cases where this happened so that some family member can get their hands on a well-kept vintage car.

When is it time to hang up the keys? It’s a difficult question because we all age differently. Statistically, when we hit 70 we move into a different category of risk. In your 70s and onward, you are more likely to be involved in a crash than any other age group, except those who are 25 and younger.

I don’t feel that doctors should be the sole arbiters of driving fitness and the motor vehicle system shouldn’t put them in that position. But the docs still have a vital role to play. People who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Parkison’s disease, hearing and vision problems, stroke survivors and some with diabetes are candidates for extra assessments around their driving ability.

When a person’s medical fitness becomes a cornerstone issue for safety I don’t feel it’s unreasonable to have the driver’s medical test covered by MSP once you’ve reached 80. Many seniors still need to drive in these later years to maintain a social life, to run errands for a disabled partner or to see health providers.

Covering the cost of a mandatory test is not unreasonable, particularly for those on fixed incomes, and must be weighed against the loss of freedom and the costs of loneliness and social isolation.

What are some warning signs that could tell you it’s time to hang up the keys?

• Insurance costs. I had relatives who were paying more than $7,000 a year to insure their one car because of an accumulation of driving points and collisions. If the system is starting to penalize you severely, it may be time to turn in the licence.

• Family members won’t allow you to have their children as passengers. Or family members themselves refusing to drive with you.

• You are consistently being honked at or receiving harsh feedback from other drivers on the road.

• You can no longer turn your head to shoulder check turns or lane changes. Relying on your mirrors alone makes a collision just a matter of time.

• You have trouble judging distance. If you’re frequently jamming the brakes to come to a stop, vision and maybe even your mental cognition is not up to par.

• You increasing lose your way or get lost.

As Canadian society ages rapidly, it’s time for a robust conversation around giving seniors alternatives to a loss of vehicle mobility, balanced with increasing awareness and honest, straight up input to those seniors in our lives who perhaps need to seriously think about hanging up the keys.

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