At what age is a motorist too old to safely operate a motor vehicle?
This question is dragged through the media every time a senior driver has a crash that involves a loss of control, either stepping on the wrong pedal (gas instead of the brake) or losing control of steering.
In my 20 odd years of advanced driver training and auto racing, I have encountered motorists from age 16 to 96 with widely varying skills. Having sat beside and assessed thousands of drivers in the process of enhancing their driving skills, I have seen much more than the average driver.
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I have encountered motorists in their seventies who should not be driving — and I have also encountered those in their thirties in the same boat. There are people of all ages who do not possess a basic understanding of vehicle and traffic dynamics to drive safely.
To operate a complex machine in a problematical environment requires a certain level of competence. Some people simply do not have the required skills, whether due to age (diminished mental or motor skills), illness, developmental issues or impairment (alcohol or drugs).
As well, a lack of quality training leaves many motorists deficient in their driving ability.
So, there are all these reasons why a person should not to be licensed to drive — but only one is age-related.
Just as race and gender are not factors, driving competence should not be judged by age alone. Too many times I have heard people criticize the abilities of Asian or women drivers. I can name several Asian and women drivers who could drive circles around 99 per cent of the white male population! Have you heard of Kamui Kobayashi or Danica Patrick?
Lately there has been a rash of BMW bashing in the comments posted by Wheels readers. It seems many people want to associate bad driving skills with a group when it really is a factor of our society, with its poor attitude and lack of training and testing.
In all my years of driver training and competition encounters, I have encountered older motorists from both ends of the skills spectrum.
One was a wonderful gent whose family had enrolled him enrolled in our advanced driving school. On instruction day, this older man was engaged in classroom discussions and quite good with his car control skills. However, he was definitely having troubles with his short-term memory. In the driving exercises he couldn’t remember where to go next or he would forget crucial instructions. This is where he posed a threat to other motorists.
I recommended he hang up his keys and let someone else do his driving. It broke my heart to say that to him as he obviously enjoyed driving and loved his well-kept older car.
Even though his family was grateful I had told him this, he refused to give up his licence. Moreover, his doctor wouldn’t ask the Ministry of Transportation to revoke his licence because his vision and motor skills were fine.
It took a letter from me pointing out the dangerous lack of short-term memory to finally convince the doctor to write to the MTO.
In my own family, I was lucky: my father recognized his diminished driving skills and voluntarily gave up driving in his eighties. I was happy to drive for him.
On the other hand, I met a chap who helped found the Ontario Jaguar Owners’ Association in 1959. He was 90 years young when I competed against him in a Jaguar Club Autoslalom in 2009. He could outdrive many 20-year-olds!
So it obviously isn’t just about age. It’s about competence.
But we must all recognize that the aging process can affect our level of competence. Reaction time, eye sight, memory and decision-making skills are all affected by age. Each of us should accept there will come a time to hang up our keys.
By the way, these same abilities are also affected by alcohol consumption. Anyone, regardless of age, whose driving ability has been affected by the degrading of these abilities should not be allowed to drive anymore.
The best thing the Ontario government has done since introducing graduated licencing is put in place the policy of paying Ontario doctors to report senior drivers whom they deem unfit for driving.
Researchers found a 45-per-cent drop in serious trauma from traffic crashes involving these high-risk drivers since the government brought in this program. “The reduction in risk was immediate, substantial and sustained,” according to Dr. Donald Redelmeier, lead author of the study.
Why stop at removing motorists who pose a risk simply due to age? If this one area of re-evaluation of driving ability can reduce deaths, injuries and the associated costs, why not expand retesting to all drivers?
Maybe the government should also pay doctors to report those suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction so their licences can be revoked too. How about reporting those too immature to drive? There are far too many motorists of all ages who are easily distracted or lack the maturity to focus on driving — distracted driving is a leading cause of traffic crashes and fatalities. We lose many more lives to distracted and impaired driving than to seniors losing control of their car.
What we need is a system of more stringent driver testing and retesting to remove drivers who lack the ability to drive safely whether it is due to age, immaturity, illness or a natural lack of competence.
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