Driving test technology should be accessible to Seniors

Society tends to identify generations by one convenient image: The Roaring Twenties, Generation X, etc., but no generation has ever been homogeneous, most particularly the 21st. century Boomers (or even Zoomers), which is the largest cohort in Canadian history.

Pundits – usually younger – seem to delight in categorizing ‘aging boomers’ as exorbitant users of health care, free-loaders gobbling up financial benefits, and a menace behind the wheel. All of these claims are highly exaggerated but especially in the case of older drivers, because they form the basis of policies that limit their rights.

While it is true the longer one lives, the more likely one is to have medical problems, which can impede safe driving, these are not confined to the aged. Indeed the opposite may be true: Senior drivers are not normally associated with unsafe practices, such as tail-gating, cutting in, or road rage, and usually compensate for decreases in night vision or less flexibility, for example, but limiting driving to the time of day and the type of road that is within their comfort zone. A recent study suggests that young children may be safer driving with their grandparents than even with their parents. Click here to read the study.

CARP has been a strong supporter of refresher courses, including road re-training if needed, and restricted licences which allow drivers of any age to legally drive, but willingly confine their driving to daylight hours, and on highways where the maximum speed limit is 80 km per hour. This is particularly important for rural residents, where public transportation is rare or non-existent.

In North America, a spate of research projects is trying to determine the best way to keep older drivers safely on the road. In the U.S. a huge, preliminary research study is trying to find out just what the rules are in every state. Like Canada, they vary widely. Every province has different criteria, the most common being a medical problem reported by doctor or family member to the Ministry of Transportation licencing bureau. Alberta is currently working on a number of initiatives, through the Alberta Traffic Safety Communications Plan Three-Year Strategy, which includes aging driver strategies.

The most recent, comprehensive Canada-wide research, is being conducted by Candrive, which is beginning Year Three in a Five Year study. An international network of Inter-Disciplinary Investigators, lead by Dr. Malcolm Man-Son-Hing and Dr. Shawn Marshall, University of Ottawa, includes Geriatricians, Occupational and Physical Therapists, Rheumatologists, and other specialists involved in analyzing data supplied by close to 1,000 volunteers, aged 70 and over, in eight cities across Canada. The study tracks miles driven, braking patterns and – inevitably – collision rates. According to Dr. Marshall, the media often calls for all older drivers to be removed or tested, but the literature suggests that some of the safest drivers on the road are older drivers.

Nevertheless, by 2020, it is estimated that one in four drivers in Canada will be 65 or older. Several provinces have regulations regarding licence renewals for senior drivers, including medical fitness reports, educational sessions, vision and rules of the road reviews, and actual road testing.

The problem with many of these rules is that they are age-specific rather than accurate measures of the person’s actual driving ability. This is then exacerbated by the use of inappropriate technology.

Researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, have come up with a device to measure cognitive ability, called DriveABLE, launched as commercial business, rolling across the country. In the forefront of jurisdictions relying heavily on Drive Able, has been the province of British Columbia.

DriveAble uses a touch screen computer to asses mental acuity, in which candidates perform a sequence of tests, touching a series of boxes on the screen, guiding objects through moving windows, assessing traffic scenes, with performance and reaction times measured. It is a 45-minute test, designed to uncover problems regarding mental processes, not actual driving ability.

While the researchers claim testers provide ample time for candidates to become familiar and comfortable with the procedure, CARP has received numerous complaints from seniors, particularly those not familiar with computers, that the procedure is intimidating and nerve-wracking to the point where they felt the tester was not there to evaluate them fairly, but to fail them. Many would have preferred a road test, which is denied if the candidate “fails” the DriveABLE test.

A recent study which appeared in the Australian Journal of Occupational Therapy, said that DriveABLE is good at detecting cognitive problems where they exist, but nearly 50 per cent of the time, also diagnose problems where they do not exist. (our emphasis)

CARP asked one of our B.C. members specific questions, in order for us to evaluate her experience with DriveABLE. Here are her responses:

Q: Was the assessor helpful in explaining the process?

A. She explained briefly and clearly, but assumed I would know quickly where to find the answers on the screen.

Q. Did you have time to practice?

A. Once or twice, on screen and on paper. (I did better on paper.)

(comment: DriveABLE should allow a senior a 15-minute practice a day or two before the test, to familiarize us with the buttons.)

Q. Did the assessor help you to get comfortable with the process?

A. No. I am under 4’10”, and I was obliged to manipulate controls at uncontrollable heights, holding my hands above my shoulders, and move left, right, up and down from that position, a position never involved in driving. I was forced to think more about where the buttons were, than what the answers were, and how fast I could move to the next one, which I knew was the object of the process.

In actual driving, I can concentrate on the situation, and adjust to conditions, and am free to select when and where I drive, in what weather and time of day. The DriveABLE test takes none of these into consideration.

Q. Were you referred by your doctor because of a medical condition?

A. No. He stated that I should do the test because of my age, not because of any pre-existing medical condition other than osteoarthritis, which is under control and does not interfere with my driving ability.

Q. Do you have any comments about the approach of the DriveABLE process?

A. As a former teacher, I believe the negative attitude causes people to approach the test with the expectation of failure. With no medical indication of cognitive problems, I believe I was wrongly routed.

The experience related above, plus anecdotal reports would indicate that reliance on technology may provide some clues in some cases, but if devices such as DriveABLE provide inaccurate answers in such a large percentage of cases, they should not be used in isolation. The most reliable way to test a driver’s ability is still a road test.

In future articles, we will cover the other barriers that have been erected against older drivers – based no doubt on the persistent presumption that older drivers are independently less competent. These range from unnecessary referrals to testing to exorbitant increases in testing fees as recently proposed in Nova Scotia.

We can agree that driving continues to be a privilege and that regulations are necessary to keep everyone on the road safe. But we need to get past stereotypes and inappropriate technologies that unfairly rob older Canadians of their independence.

We welcome comments from members on the subject. Please write to: [email protected]