Is age an issue behind the wheel?
In Royal Inland Hospital right now, two Kamloops women are fighting for their lives.
One is 19. She has been in a coma since September, when she was struck by a vehicle while walking through a crosswalk on Fortune Drive.
The other is 53. She is in critical condition after being hit by a car on Willow Street on Nov. 3.
In both cases, police have said the drivers were men in their 80s.
The two collisions are the latest in a string of crashes involving elderly drivers dating back to last year.
Remember those two days in June 2011, when two separate storefronts were demolished by two separate vehicles driven by two separate — both identified by police as “elderly” — drivers?
In the weeks that followed, two pedestrians — one a six-year-old girl walking on an Aberdeen sidewalk, the other a 45-year-old man walking near a downtown parking lot — were hit in separate instances by elderly drivers.
It raises the question — are too many Kamloops drivers too old to be behind the wheel?
The answer is no, according to those charged with keeping our community safe.
“It’s not age being a factor,” Kamloops RCMP Staff Sgt. Grant Learned said.
“It’s making sure people have the physical and mental capabilities to drive effectively, no matter what their age.
“You can’t cast aspersions on a person’s ability to drive simply by virtue of their age.”
But, Learned admitted, health problems making driving difficult become more likely as a person gets older.
“There is a recognition that as you get older, things like your reaction time slow down,” he said.
“But, it’s not automatic. It’s not every person. You’ve got to be very, very careful in tarring all seniors with the same brush.
“You have a cross-section of bad-driving behaviour that fits every segment of driver.”
However, age is a concern, at least according to the provincial government. In 2010, Victoria enacted a law requiring drivers to undergo a medical exam every two years once they reach 80 years of age.
According to Stephanie Melvin, B.C.’s deputy superintendent of motor vehicles, 45,000 seniors are tested by their doctors each year.
If they’re flagged by their physician, the drivers can be forced to take the province’s DriveABLE test — a series of in-office and on-road assessments.
In 2011, Melvin said, about 2,500 drivers took the test. Of those, approximately 65 per cent failed.
Melvin stressed the fact the seemingly high failure rate is due to the fact all of those tested were determined to have some sort of cognitive or health-related impairment.
“It’s not a very high [pass] rate because these people are people who have been identified by their physician as having a cognitive impairment,” she said.
“It’s a way of assessing somebody’s cognitive abilities as they relate to driving.”
The flagging system puts a lot of faith in the doctors conducting the initial tests.
According to the head of a Kamloops seniors’ agency, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Brenda Prevost, executive director of the Kamloops Centre for Seniors Information, said she knows there are elderly drivers on local streets who have no business being behind a steering wheel.
In one instance, she said, a local woman had three driving accidents in a one-year span due to reduced eyesight. When she went for her mandatory testing, the doctor gave her the all-clear.
“I think the doctor still needs to be more diligent to say, ‘Your driving days are over,’” Prevost said.
“It should be a medical decision.”
But, Prevost said, medical testing should not be mandatory.
“I think there should be a test, yes, but I think if a person is doing well, they shouldn’t have to be tested,” she said. “What’s age got to do with it? It’s health.”
That sentiment is echoed by Al Dobbs, an Edmonton doctor who worked as the chief scientific officer in the creation of the DriveABLE program in Alberta in the 1990s.
“We’ve had drivers who are over 100 years of age who have looked good,” he said.
“Not many, but it’s possible. But, we’ve had drivers who are 18 who you would not want out on the road. It’s not age, although, as we get older, we’re more likely to have a problem affecting our ability to drive.”
According to Learned, the issue of elderly drivers is only going to get more attention.
“It’s a really tough argument, but it’s a relevant argument to have because of the growing senior population,” he said.
“There’s going to be a whole wave of the boomer drivers that are going to be out there — the roads will be filled with a higher percentage of older drivers.”