Elderly drivers under new scrutiny

The death of a 31-year-old woman who was struck and killed by an 83-year-old driver has once again raised the sensitive subject of when seniors ought to hang up the keys.

“There comes a point in time … where it is no longer safe for you to drive a car,” Premier Dalton McGuinty said Wednesday. “You have to be honest with yourself … and so does your physician.”

Police said charges are pending against the elderly woman who was driving north on Martin Grove Rd. on Tuesday when she allegedly ran a red light and struck Marites Mendoza, who was crossing the street at Eglinton Ave. W. while pushing her 7-week-old boy in a stroller.

Ontario has the “toughest regime” in Canada for keeping an eye on senior drivers, said Transportation Minister Jim Bradley. “We get most of our complaints from senior drivers, who think it’s very onerous.”

Drivers 80 years and older must attend a class on rules of the road and pass a written and eyesight test every two years in order to renew their licences. Some may also be asked to take a road test.

Any driver over 80 caught breaking the rules of the road resulting in demerit points must take a road test, while doctors must report any medical issues in patients that could affect their driving to the government, Bradley added.

Although senior drivers are involved in almost half as many fatal collisions as teenage drivers, they are involved “in a larger number of collisions compared to the number of kilometres they drive,” according to the ministry.

Tuesday’s accident recalls a similar one from a decade ago, when 42-year-old Beth Kidnie was killed after Pilar Hicks, 84, ran a red light at Bloor St. W. and Markland Dr. and kept driving, dragging Kidnie’s body for several kilometres before realizing what she had done.

Hicks, who had passed three transportation ministry road and written tests before the accident and received a clean bill of health from her doctor a few months before the accident, was convicted of criminal negligence causing death and had her licence taken away.

An inquest recommended giving doctors more discretion to report when someone may no longer be fit to drive, and a graduated delicensing program that would restrict an older person’s driving, without suspending their licence outright.

Two Ottawa-based researchers hope a new national study will be able to give doctors the tools to identify when seniors may no longer be fit to get behind the wheel.

Dr. Shawn Marshall, a lead researcher of the study, which will monitor more than 1,000 drivers aged 70 and over in seven cities for five years, says older drivers are some of the safest on the road

“Age isn’t really the factor in determining fitness to drive,” he said. “It’s really about health.”

Speaking about Tuesday’s accident, Marshall noted that while much of the focus has been on the driver’s age, “we know nothing of her health status.”

The study will look at how medical conditions affect a person’s physical and cognitive abilities, with the hope of developing a diagnostic tool to help doctors better identify when an older person is no longer fit to be on the road.

To volunteer for the study, call 1-866-233-1133.