Does this sound familiar? Driving to work, you get stuck behind a slow-moving 1997 Buick LeSabre driven by a dignified, but completely unhurried and slightly unpredictable elderly gentleman wearing a Frank Sinatra-themed fedora. Your occasional horn blasts seem to have no effect on his leisurely pace. As your frustration increases and your grip on the steering wheel begins to tighten, you mutter under your breath about how older drivers should have their driver’s licenses taken away before they hurt someone. “Why can’t older people just stay at home and play bridge,” you complain, “or watch re-runs of I Love Lucy?”

Well, you might be surprised to learn that older drivers are among the safest drivers in part because they are less likely to speed or drink and drive. And though Statistics Canada studies show that people aged 70 or older have a higher accident rate per kilometre driven than any other age group except young male drivers, these statistics don’t take into account that most seniors drive fewer kilometres, mostly on city streets where collisions are more common than freeways.

As well, studies show that age alone is not a valid determinant of a person’s ability to drive as the onset of physical and mental weaknesses varies widely depending on the individual. Older drivers who do have problems usually compensate for these disadvantages by driving less, not driving at night, avoiding busy streets and freeways, and not driving in snowy or icy conditions.

“Many older adults continue to be safe drivers and make decisions to avoid situations in which they feel less confident,” explained Philippe Perron, an occupational therapist with the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists. “But we all know that at some point, we may have to adjust our driving habits due to age-related health changes.”

That’s especially important for seniors because they are more likely to be injured or killed in a collision. Canadian drivers aged 65 and over represent 17 percent of collision fatalities even though they only account for 14 percent of the licensed drivers. The rate of fatalities per distance travelled increases considerably at 75 and over. The reason? Seniors are physically more fragile.

But don’t ask a senior to give up his or her car. Even the Queen of England, who is 90, was recently spotted driving her eight-year-old Range Rover around the Balmoral estate in Scotland.  Numerous studies have shown that older drivers do not want to give up their vehicles. A 2008 study on Seniors and Alternate Transportation revealed that giving up the car is akin to a social disability and creates a dependency on others to meet the demands of everyday living. Seniors do not necessarily want to drive but they do wish to be independent.

“It’s been demonstrated and said many times, that receiving the news that you will be losing your driver's license has the same weight as being diagnosed with cancer," said Sylvain Gagnon, a researcher for the Canadian Driving Research Initiative for Vehicular Safety in the Elderly (CanDrive), a government-funded health related research program dedicated to improving the safety of older drivers.

That’s partly because of where seniors live. Seniors 65–74 typically live outside urban areas where transit is limited. They may no longer drive to work, but they still need a car to get to the grocery store, doctor’s appointments, visiting children and grandchildren, going for coffee or perhaps working part-time to supplement their income. For seniors, having a car and a driver’s license means freedom of mobility and independence.

Still, once a driver reaches 80 years of age, many Canadian provinces require a vision test and/or a written driving test to make sure the person is still capable of driving safely. In Ontario, for example, drivers 80 and older must pass a vision test, a written knowledge test and a complete a group education course every two years. Some drivers are also required to pass a road test. Refresher courses for older drivers are also available in many provinces.

Neil Prissick, a Driving Instructor and Training Assessment Officer at North Shore Driving School in North Vancouver recommends older drivers do a mild refresher course at a driving school before they are asked to do a driver’s test.  “I had a gentlemen who is 88 with diabetes who didn’t do well on the provincial driver’s test, but after taking a refresher course and practicing a lot, he was quite successful.”

Prissick says common mistakes made by elderly drivers include “not recognizing some of the signs on the road, driving through a new posted speed limit like a playground or a school zone going well over the speed, being too cautious merging onto the freeway to the point where they are dangerous, not checking blind spots when making a turn, or not coming to a complete stop behind the line at a stop sign.”

“They’ve been driving for 50 odd years so they’ve developed those habits which are hard to get rid of,” he notes.

According to the CAA, drivers 65 and over account for twice as many fatalities as drivers 26–64 when attempting to make a left turn at an intersection.

“They may be having problems judging the speed of the approaching traffic,” says Prissick. Another common mistake is that before they turn they’re not really checking for any pedestrians so they start to drive and all of a sudden they’ll have to manoeuvre and hit the brakes because they didn’t anticipate any pedestrians in the crosswalk.”

The CAA recommends signalling at least 50 metres in advance of the intersection, checking for other vehicles, bicycles or pedestrians in your path and be ready to yield, and don’t turn until your car is even with the lane you want to turn into – then double-check for oncoming cars and pedestrians before making the turn. Alternatively and where possible, you can drive past the intersection, turn right at the next street, right again and right again to get onto the street you wanted.

The increasing number of older drivers on the road is becoming a growing safety issue. Senior drivers are among the fastest growing demographic in Canada. In 2009, there were 3.25 million drivers over 65 in Canada; that number is expected to double by 2028. Statistics Canada projects seniors over the age of 65 years will make up approximately 25 percent of the total Canadian population by 2031, an increase from about 15 percent of the population right now.

So how can older drivers make their journeys safer and less stressful? The first step is admitting there is a problem. To help, the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists (CAOT) compiled this list of warning signs for older drivers:

• You lose your way
• You have less confidence in your driving skills
• You notice other drivers honking at you
• You miss stop signs or traffic lights
• You mix up the gas and brake pedals
• You have problems with lane changes or merging
• You have minor collisions or traffic tickets
• Your passenger needs to help you
• Your family and friends refuse to be driven by you anywhere

The Canadian Automobile Association, which publishes a website especially for older drivers, SeniorsDriving.caa.ca, advises that becoming a better driver begins with maintaining optimum mental and physical fitness. Good nutrition, regular exercise, and regular eye exams and medical checkups are important. “In order to drive safely we need to be physically fit enough to reach for and buckle our seat belt, turn to check blind spots, grip and control the steering wheel, depress the correct foot pedals and operate controls such as those for headlights and windshield wipers. Our mental fitness is also critical to our ability to drive safely. We need to be able to remember directions, recognize traffic signs, and react to all the incoming data that we have to process quickly in order to drive, such as what other cars are doing, when traffic lights change, and when people suddenly step out in front of us without warning.”

Many seniors require regular medication for serious conditions like diabetes or stroke that could affect their ability to drive. Remembering to take medication regularly is crucial.

Your car’s health is important too. Regular tune-ups, proper tires for the season with the right tire pressures, proper wipers, a full bottle of windshield washer fluid, clean windows for good visibility, and working headlights and turn signals are all important for safe driving. In winter, take the time to clean the ice and snow off all the windows and lights before heading out.

Keep an emergency kit, ice scraper and snow brush in the trunk. Click here for a Transport Canada video about what to include in your emergency kit.

Pre-trip planning can take the worry out of a journey. Experts recommend planning the easiest and most familiar route to your destination and driving in non-rush-hour periods to reduce the stress of being caught on unfamiliar roads, getting lost, or having to navigate heavy traffic. Leave earlier than you need to avoid the stress of being late for, or missing an appointment. If the weather turns nasty, consider delaying your travelling plans or taking public transit.

Driving at night can present special challenges for seniors. The Canadian Medical Association’s Driver’s Guide warns that older drivers eyes have more difficulty adjusting to the dark and recovering from the glare of headlights. The CAA recommends keeping your eyes moving, avoiding looking directly at oncoming headlights by looking down to the right side of the road. Prolonged exposure to sunlight can also cause eyestrain; wear sunglasses but remember to remove them in underground parking lots and tunnels.

A proper seating position in the car can also contribute to a less stressful driving experience. The CAA’s pre-driving checklist recommends an upright body position in the driver’s seat with easy access to controls, good outward visibility and properly adjusted rearview mirrors. Your head restraint, which helps prevent whiplash in a rear-end collision, should be adjusted so that the middle of it is level with your ears.

Even the type of car you drive can make a big contribution to stress-free driving. For example, is your car easy to get in and out of, is outward visibility unobstructed, is the driver’s seat and steering wheel height-adjustable, are the instruments easy to read? The Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists (CAOT) has developed a comprehensive list of the types of vehicles to consider. As well, the CAA and CAOT have joined forces to introduce the CarFit Canada program, a hands-on review of how a driver and their car work together. Clinics are available across the country.

Once you’re out on the road, leave a safe following distance to the car in front – on the freeway, spot a roadside feature and count two seconds between the time the car in front of you passes it and the time your car reaches it. This allows you sufficient time to stop if they slam on their brakes, reducing the chance of a rear-ender. Drive in the slow lane, but don’t drive too slowly as that can actually increase the risk of a collision. And don’t allow aggressive tailgaters to distract you from safe driving practices.

Prissick recommends looking down the road a little further and anticipate what might happen before it happens. “Seniors sometimes tend to rush their manoeuvres and perhaps aren’t thinking enough about where they should be looking before they go.”

When merging onto the freeway, speed up to the same speed as the freeway traffic while keeping a safe distance from the car in front of you, signal, check your blind spot and merge smoothly into an open space while watching for other cars changing lanes.

In urban driving, be alert for changing traffic signals, other cars changing lanes, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Anticipate which lane you should be in well ahead of making a turn.

If using a roundabout, yield to cars already travelling in the roundabout and after entering continue around and exit to the right.

In-car distractions, such as a loud radio, conversation with a passenger, or a wireless Bluetooth telephone call should be avoided to maintain full concentration on the road ahead. But bring a cell phone with you should you need to call for help.

New safety technologies such as blind-spot warning and lane-departure warning are designed to prevent collisions, but Prissick isn’t sure they will help senior drivers. “It could make it more complicated. They’re not used to that. They grew up without all of that.”

Prissick also points out that driving exams require actual shoulder checks. A person relying on the blind-spot warning system would fail the test.

Seniors must also face increasing traffic congestion in an area where they’ve been living for many years. “In today’s world, there are many more things to look out for, e.g. distracted drivers, distracted pedestrians, and just the overall load of traffic.”

By maintaining mental and physical fitness, planning ahead for each trip, ensuring a good driving position in the car, and using defensive driving techniques, older drivers can minimize the stress of driving and vastly reduce the risks of having a collision with all its potential physical, financial and emotional costs.

Guides for senior drivers:
BCAA Senior Drivers' Portal
CanDrive
Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists
CarFit Canada brochure
CarFit USA
Canadian Medical Association Senior’s policy guide
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety