Grey gridlock: Car advances should ease commute for aging workforce

By Misty Harris, Postmedia News March 19, 2012 11:02 AM Be the first to post a comment 

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Richard Marr remembers his first car. It was a used Austin A40, bought shortly after the war, and it made the teenager a star on his block.

“It didn’t go very fast, but it ran really well. And it was the cutest thing,” says Marr, who lives on Vancouver Island. “I think I would’ve had it to this day if my mother hadn’t messed it up when backing out of the garage.”

Marr, 72, still drives every day.

In the coming decades, a virtual grey gridlock is expected to emerge on our roadways as Canadians work — and commute — into their 70s and 80s. Even now, debate over bumping the eligibility for Old Age Security from 65 to 67 has many seniors sweating their retirement, or outright postponing it.

The challenges are evident.

Traffic-injury research shows seniors account for the second-highest proportion of road deaths, behind only 15- to 24-year-olds. And based on kilometres driven, the Canada Safety Council reports that older drivers have more collisions than any other age group.

But the transportation industry is working to ease the transition, from bloated fonts on street signs to car seats embedded with heart monitors and vehicles that practically drive themselves. Because people who’ve driven their entire lives can’t be expected to just surrender their car keys.

“If I became ill and someone said I couldn’t drive, it would be a major learning curve for me,” says Elizabeth Hamblett, a 73-year-old from Victoria. “I’ve had elderly (male) friends who’ve lost their licences and it was like they lost their manhood. They went downhill really rapidly after that.”

When her own time in the driver’s seat is up, Hamblett hopes she can “give up gracefully.” For future generations of commuters, however, that may not be required.

Darren Scott, an associate professor in the Transportation Research Lab at McMaster University in Ontario, says automation is among the options being explored.

“We may see the driver become increasingly disassociated with the actual driving process,” says Scott. “The car will just do the driving, based on sensory technology embedded inside it. Almost like science fiction.”

Google, for instance, has come out with a fleet of vehicles that can do 120 kilometres an hour, with no human involvement, on a busy public highway. BMW, General Motors, Mercedes and Toyota are working on similarly autonomous, or semi-autonomous, vehicles that leverage data and robotics to relieve drivers from having to actually drive.

“That’s what engineers would like to see,” says Scott. “(A system) where you take everything out of the individual’s hands and let computers do it for them.”

Data from a national survey on time-use show that in 2005, urban seniors age 65 to 69 spent virtually the same amount of time driving per trip as 45 to 64-year-olds. Furthermore, between 1992 and 2005, travel time per trip for older seniors (age 70 to 74) increased by almost 22 per cent — a change far greater than that experienced by their younger counterparts on the road.

McMaster University’s Antonio Paez says the seniors who continue commuting by choice aren’t likely a threat, as they tend to be physically able. By contrast, Canadians obligated to remain in the labour force, despite declines in their health and mobility, are cause for concern.

“For someone who is 75, can’t drive as they did before, is living in the suburbs, and working to make ends meet, there’s no easy fix,” says Paez, who studies travel behaviour.

To accommodate the silver sea change, recommendations set forth by highway administrators include more legible typefaces on signs (a font called Clearview, for instance, makes text visible to elder drivers from 16 per cent farther away), more flashing green arrows at left turns, better pavement markings at intersections, roads that intersect at angles no less than 75 degrees, and longer acceleration lanes for right turns onto high-speed roads.

Indeed, McMaster’s Scott says it’s indeed “almost unimaginable” what our infrastructure will look like just 30 years from now.

At the most basic level, vehicle-navigation systems are expected to lead to greater reliance on computer-recommended routes, which typically involve main thoroughfares. Scott notes this represents a departure from the past, with older drivers having historically favoured alternative routes that avoided traffic and left-hand turns.

Auto manufacturers, for their part, are doing what they can to ensure seniors won’t have to change their driving habits solely because of declining health.

Ford, for example, is already testing technologies such as biometric driver’s seats, which use electrode-sensing equipment to monitor heart activity. The company is also developing remote services that will allow people to manage chronic illness from their cars, tracking everything from glucose levels to asthma risks, as well as placing younger engineers in “age suits” that allow them to experience driving as a senior might.

“The goal is to address issues of aging through universal design,” says Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s in-house futurist. “A reverse-sensing system in a camera will help you navigate your vehicle, whether you’re 61 or 16.”

Other innovations expected to be standard on cars in the future include auto-braking, curve control (prevents a driver from going too quickly through a turn), blind-spot alerts, heated seats with lumbar support, and larger instrument panels.

Because even if every effort is made to offer elderly workers alternatives to driving, it’s unlikely they’ll find many takers with life expectancy continuing to stretch.

“If I think I’m going to live to 85, I may be more willing to surrender my keys at 83,” says Connelly. “But what happens if I live to 105?”

Jack Purkis, an 81-year-old retiree from Victoria, says he relies on his car to visit his wife in the care home, to run errands and to go to places unreachable by public transit. To give all that up, he says, “would be a very great loss.”

The good news is that older drivers are becoming increasingly road savvy, with evidence from the past eight months suggesting things aren’t “going to hell and a hand-basket” as the industry once predicted, according to a Canada Safety Council spokesman.

“New seniors are more competent,” explains council general manager Raynald Marchand, noting that a lifetime of driving experience and more stringent licensing rules appear to be combating previously observed perils. “There’s still room for improvement, but things aren’t looking as bad as we expected.”

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