How old is too old to drive a school bus?

Originally published in the Gazette on March 17th 2010. To go to The Gazette website, please click here.

When an 81-year-old school bus driver crashed into a light pole in Edmonton recently, the local school district announced it would look into imposing more stringent testing for bus drivers over 70.

Some school districts, including ones in British Columbia, Alberta and the Maritimes, have gone a step farther by forcing bus drivers to retire when they turn 65.

Educators say they’re just looking after the safety of children, but critics say these policies smack of ageism and are unfair to older people who want to stay active.

“We’re insane to cut people off like this. It’s short-sighted,” said Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, a national watchdog group for older Canadians.

“The idea that someone has to go out to pasture when they reach the age of 65 is not acceptable.”

Since January, at least three school bus drivers over 65 have been accused of causing traffic accidents.

On March 10, a 74-year-old bus driver was charged with failing to obey a stop sign after colliding with a car in Almonte, Ont., according to police. Several students were onboard at the time but none was injured.

On Jan. 22, a 71-year-old bus driver was charged with failing to yield to traffic after colliding with a car in Powassan, Ont. No students were injured in that incident either.

The Edmonton case happened Jan. 11. According to police, the 81-year-old driver was in a turn lane, but instead of turning, he proceeded into oncoming traffic and smashed into a light pole. A crane had to be used to lift the bus off the pole. The only passenger on the bus was not hurt. The driver, who was serving the Edmonton Catholic School District, was charged with making an improper turn.

Two school bus companies contacted by Canwest News Service — First Student Canada, which operates nationwide, and Premier Bus Lines, which operates in eastern Ontario — estimate that 10 to 15 per cent of their drivers are 65 and older.

Following the Edmonton crash in January, the local Catholic school district surveyed the five bus companies with which it contracts and learned that 49 of 150 of the companies’ drivers were 65 and older, said Lori Nagy, a district spokeswoman.

Nagy said the district is now looking into adopting a mandatory testing program for drivers 70 and older that will test their cognitive, mental and motor skills — tests that go beyond the annual medical checkups that senior bus drivers in Alberta are required to take to maintain their licences.

Other districts have simply told bus drivers they have to stop driving when they reach 65.

The Central Okanagan school district in B.C. adopted such a policy in 2008. According to the district, there’s a greater risk for “spontaneous medical issues” to present themselves in people 65 and older that often can’t be predicted during regular medical exams.

“That was a risk factor our board felt they had to take action to avoid,” said superintendent Hugh Gloster, adding that the district offers drivers retraining for other jobs.