And while it may not have been the intention to make seniors feel targeted, people John Zenker, 76, can’t quite understand why the tip line was aimed at older drivers, when it’s much younger people who are more dangerous.
“Young drivers are so aggressive,” he said, as he worked on a watercolour painting at the Parkdale Centre downtown on Feb. 22.
Zencker and his 71-year-old wife still drive. In fact, they take turns driving all the way to the Florida Keys each year and have no plans to quit anytime soon.
“Of course, driving gives us independence that we cherish very much,” he said. “But I think if someone can’t drive anymore, they should stop driving. They should say that’s it, I give up, I’ll take the bus.”
The tip line was set up last month allowing Sudburians to call Crime Stoppers to report seniors who they fear can no longer drive safely. It’s an initiative from the NorthEast Dementia Coalition, a collection of agencies dedicated to co-ordinating a strategy to ensure seniors can drive for as long as possible as safely as possible.
Through a $60,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the coalition has hired a program co-ordinator and created two education pamphlets. One deals with safe driving tips for older drivers, the other on warning signs to look for in an older loved one who may be finding it harder and harder to drive.
The tip line was seen as a way to allow family and friends to anonymously alert authorities to possible problems with older drivers. When they receive a tip, a plainclothes officer would go to the senior’s residence in an unmarked car to investigate. Since the line was set up, three older drivers have been reported, two of whom voluntarily gave up their driver’s license.
But many seniors were extremely upset when word of the tip line got around. Patricia Douglas, president of the Sudbury chapter of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, was even interviewed Feb. 21 on the CBC radio program As It Happens.
Douglas said seniors were both afraid that their neighbours would be unfairly reporting them and angry because they felt they were being unfairly targeted.
“It created a lot of fear,” she said Feb. 21. “A lot of people thought the police were going to be knocking on their door and they would be losing their licence. And I don’t think it was really necessary. I don’t. I think they should spend a lot more time looking at the younger drivers.”
The challenges of living in Northern Ontario make driving essential for independent living, she said. Singling out seniors who are mostly safe drivers strikes her as unfair.
“It spelled ageism to me. And why target seniors?”
She’s trying to take an active approach on the issue, Douglas said, and is talking to Young Drivers of Canada to see if they would be willing to offer a refresher-style training course specifically for seniors. The company trains new drivers across the country.
“There always has to come something good from the bad,” she said. “I want to see if we can develop a really good practical driving refresher for seniors.”
While she appreciates the good intentions of the tip line, she said it should be family physicians making the decision, because they are the most qualified.
“Doctors should be the one who tells the person that they can’t drive anymore,” she said. “It should be a professional person who does that.”
But Dr. Birgit Pianosi, chair of Huntington University’s Gerontology Department, said the fact doctors are not reporting patients is one of the factors behind the tip line.
“By law, they have to report unsafe drivers, and the majority do not do that,” Pianosi said. “It’s really not their fault – they’re not educated on this and don’t have the tools.”
She’s mortified that some seniors feel targeted and says it was never the intent to strike fear in them that they are being watched.
“It breaks my heart, because absolutely it was not what the intention of this is,” she said. “We are hoping to increase awareness of older adults and the difficulties they are facing with transportation.”
“Physicians are not taking the responsibility to report unsafe drivers. And I’m not just talking about older drivers, I mean in general.”
Another goal is to raise awareness about the transportation needs of older adults in our community, particularly in the North, where access to public transportation is severely limited.
“If you’re an older adult with dementia, they’re not permitted to use the Handicap transportation because they’re not physically disabled,” Pianosi said.
It’s only a very small minority of older drivers who are unsafe, “and they could cause a lot of harm … There has to be an (alternative) system in place if physicians are not doing their job. Somebody else has to take the step.
“It’s true that young people are far more dangerous on the road. There are far more accidents involving young people.”
But the aging Baby Boomer population is healthy, and will live longer than previous generations, she said. And since both men and women from that generation drive, there will be a lot more older drivers on the road in the coming years, she said.
“I’m an advocate for older adults. I don’t want them to be reported if they’re not unsafe drivers. But I also feel responsible for helping ensure they are safe on the road.”
She denies accusations of ageism, and says driving limitations shouldn’t be linked to age, but rather health and the presence of diseases like dementia. What is discriminatory, Pianosi said, is forcing people to go for driving tests at age 80.
“There are many young people who are unsafe on the road, why are we waiting until age 80 to test people?” she said. “That’s ageism ... A normal person who is healthy should be able to drive for as long as they feel safe on the road. It really doesn’t matter what age they are. We have drivers that are over 90 that are very safe drivers.”
A disease like dementia impairs a person’s ability to judge whether they are able to continue driving, she added.
“So that’s the reason why we thought this helpline would be useful.”
For his part, Zenker said rather than targeting seniors, more driver education should be promoted
“Defensive driving should be really pushed in this province,” he said. “I really dislike tailgating. Especially in the wintertime if you have to stop, the guy behind you won’t have a chance.”
Zenker’s friend, Jerrry Blount says he still enjoys driving and feel quite safe behind the wheel, for short durations, at least. He’s not looking forward to having to go for driving tests when he’s older, but he’s not afraid of it, either.
“I’m 77 and I have all my wits about me, thankfully,” he said. “I have to pass a test at age 80, but if they’ll permit it and I’m able to, I’ll drive until the age of 100. And then perhaps I might retire from the wheel.”