South Okanagan senior drivers face different testing under new program

Penticton and area seniors are facing changes to testing for drivers.

  • Mar. 22, 2012 9:00 a.m.

Bill Ellis can recall a few stories about what it’s like being behind the wheel of a Toronto city bus for 28 years and 11 months — but he hopes he never faces some of the stories he hears when it comes to mature drivers losing their licence.

“I drove all my life,” the 83-year-old says. “I don’t have a problem now. Everything works out fine for me and I can do my own thing. But that’s not to say I don’t fall tomorrow or something happens, I can’t get around to well. If I didn’t have my licence, oh boy. That would be a problem.”

Ellis is one of 84,000 drivers in B.C. over the age of 80 — a segment of the population the B.C. government had in mind as it makes changes to its DriveABLE program that evaluates whether senior drivers are still safe behind the wheel.

The West Bench resident says it would be really tough for him to get around if his doctors found his glaucoma had progressed to the point where he had to be assessed.

“I don’t have any problems with driving, but it does enter your mind when you’re 83 years old. I’m not as sharp as I was when I was 30,” Ellis said. “I assume I don’t have any problems. But that doesn’t mean I might not have in the future.”

Of the 3.1 million drivers in B.C., 1,500 are given the DriveABLE assessment after a referral by their physician, who identifies cognitive issues in their patients that might hamper safe driving abilities.

Before, mature drivers would be tested only by an in-office computer assessment — but some seniors expressed concern about using computer touch-screens.

Now those who fail the computer test will also conduct a road evaluation, which will be conducted on a special road course designed to reveal and evaluate driving errors associated with cognitive decline. Minor handling errors or bad habits are not part of the on-road scoring.

The superintendent of motor vehicles then makes a decision based on the road and computer tests in addition to available medical information. All assessments are conducted free of charge.

DriveABLE is currently available at 17 centres throughout the province, up from three in 2005. The closest one for South Okanagan seniors would be in Kelowna.

Attorney General Shirley Bond said they were also investigating options to ensure seniors in rural regions were able to take DriveABLE tests closer to home, to alleviate anxiety that could skew results.

“Our goal is to keep drivers on the road as long as it’s safe to do so, and my staff will continue to look for ways to improve this program. By offering the DriveABLE on-road assessment in addition to the in-office computer assessment, and by also taking into account the medical referral, the superintendent will be able to make the most informed decision possible around driver fitness,” said Bond.

“With our growing seniors population, it is critical that we continue to ensure our streets are safe while giving seniors the confidence that decisions on their ability to drive is done in the most respectful and thorough manner.”

DriveABLE is modelled after similar programs in Alberta and Ontario. Bond added that B.C. continues research in the area of senior driver safety with peer reviews.

But Evelyn Blaine, outreach program co-ordinator for the South Okanagan Seniors Wellness Society, said the program doesn’t address the seniors whose licences are revoked out of safety concerns, and some type of transportation service is “badly needed.”

“We get calls very, very frequently from people saying ‘Do you have a program? I need someone to take me to my medical appointments,’” she said, noting the society doesn’t have such a program and the logistics of finding volunteers prevents them from exploring the option.

Seniors are often given the options of HandyDart or Taxi Savers, but Blaine said those don’t always work for individuals who struggle with mobility. Companies like Driving Miss Daisy are emerging, but not all seniors can afford the private service.

“One of the programs I do co-ordinate is the friendly visitor program. The mandate is that the volunteers go into the home and visit for an hour a week. What often happens is that they become friends with this person, and I get reports that ‘I took them to shopping and their doctor.’ We don’t ask them to do that,” Blaine said. “The impact is we get frequent, frequent calls.”

Ellis said he recognizes that safety is important, but if it ever came down to it and he lost his licence, seniors like him in West Bench would have to sell their home and move closer to town.

“They can’t lie about it. If you’re stuttering and disorientated, you shouldn’t be in a car. That is a fact,” he said.

“I live by myself. If I happen to, for some unforeseen reason, something happened where I couldn’t see or I got disorientated, I’d be in a pretty bad situation without a licence. If I couldn’t drive, how do I get into town? I live on the West Bench. It would mean a lot of changes in your life.”