Ratting out Grandpa

If you’ve ever wondered how much our society is willing to sacrifice at the altar of Public Safety, consider Sudbury’s North East Dementia Network Coalition Safe Driving Task Force.

Or as I like to call it, Rat Out Grandpa.

It’s the brainchild of Greater Sudbury Police Constable Linda Burns, who spends her time as Senior/Vulnerable Adult Liaison Officer apparently because that’s way more important than trying to do something about that city’s serious drug, violence and street crime problems.

This article was published by The Sault Star on March 1st, 2013.  To see this article and other related articles on The Sault Star website, please click here

The way the newly introduced task force works is this. People call Crime Stoppers anonymously to report that a senior citizen’s driving abilities are suspect.

The caller might be a family member too chicken or lazy to deal with a perceived problem. Or, who knows, maybe trying to hasten an aging relative’s descent into nursing home hell.

Or it could be a neighbour miffed because last fall the old guy’s leaves blew from his yard into everyone else’s.

Ideally, it would be someone legitimately concerned about an older person’s ability to drive.

Anyway, Crime Stoppers alerts Greater Sudbury Police or Sudbury OPP. Plainclothes officers visit the alleged aged offender and cart him off to the Gulag.

OK, I’m exaggerating. They just “offer help” and “encourage proactive discussion,” euphemisms for talking him into surrendering his driver’s licence.

But that, for many old people, amounts to a loss of independence and a huge change in lifestyle, perhaps even a premature trip to dependent living. Not to mention a frontal attack on their dignity.

For example, in my rural neighbour a good portion of the year-round residents are senior citizens. Take away their driver’s licences and they’d instantly be reliant on family and friends. Likely have to move to town, because 20 kilometres is a long way to walk and there’s no public transportation.

Having to leave the home you love and the community you love and start a new life in your 70s or 80s is quite a punishment for having your driving skills descend to the same level as those many, many yahoos who text, pet their dogs or digest three-course meals while they navigate our highways and byways.

But hey, we have to do something to make our roads safer, right?

Because police warn the number of seniors getting into collisions is almost on par with those 24 and under involved in accidents.

They use “number” rather than “percentage” because it suggests there’s some statistical reason to target a segment of society that has paid its dues and made its contributions for decades.

Trouble is, those two demographic groups aren’t the same size. There are a heck of a lot of seniors in northeastern Ontario, over 30 per cent in most areas.

In Algoma District, about 24,000 of us are age 65 or older. Only about 15,000 of us are age 15-24. And a lot of those in the younger age bracket are driving on restricted licences as they learn the ropes.

In Sudbury District, seniors outnumber 15-24s about 26,000 to 24,000.

So maybe the fact that senior drivers get in about the same number of crashes as a considerably smaller number of young people is a compliment to older drivers’ superior skill.

Anyway, it would be nice to have some real and convincing statistical evidence before even contemplating age profiling.

But any crash is one too many, right? We’ve got to do something.

And we already were, long before Sudbury hauled out the unnecessarily heavy artillery.

According to Bob Nichols, Ministry of Transportation media representative, since the government started driver education and biannual retesting for drivers over age 80 that age bracket’s fatal collision rate has dropped by 45 per cent.

As well, physicians are compensated for reporting medically and mentally unfit drivers. Surely doctors are better than police officers at diagnosing dementia.

And police can pull over anybody who shows signs of poor and dangerous driving.

Older folk were characteristically cranky in reacting to the Sudbury initiative. The Canadian Association of Retired People’s vice-president Susan Eng said it targets seniors.

Helping people rat our their relatives is “an abuse of public service” and “I would hope that the police officers would have a lot more to do with their time,” she said.

Like dealing with people who actually break the law, rather than those who some anonymous tipsters think might be bad drivers.

Police didn’t seem to get it.

OPP Inspector Mark Andrews blamed the blow-back on optics.

“This isn’t a task force. This is a healthcare coalition,” he said.

No sign yet of the Task Force changing its name.

Sudbury Chief Frank Elsner apologized, but insisted the task force had “nothing to do with targeting anybody, any specific segment of our population.”

Does he think the Dementia Network concerns itself with preschoolers?

Elsner said the intent was to expand this task force across the province.

Let’s hope the rest of the province has learned from Sudbury’s mistakes.

This is far from the first law-and-order initiative put forward by well-intentioned people to try to make our world a safer place, and very often zealously enforced by police officers.

Each of these new laws or campaigns has a cost, because it imposes restrictions on people’s lifestyles. And the nobility of the goal, preventing fatalities and collisions, doesn’t automatically justify that cost.

Public safety should not be our be-all and end-all, especially if it can ruin seniors’ lives. Good public policies strike a balance.

So for the benefit of society, why not cut seniors a little slack? They’ve earned it.

© The Sault Star