By Diana Faria
Traffic on the Hwy. 407 cruises by at an easy 120 km/h on this cold and wet Wednesday afternoon. In the midst of whizzing cars and wide semi-trucks is David Truman, coasting along in his two- year-old silver Honda Insight.
“I enjoy driving,” he said, turning on his right blinker as he exits Bayview Avenue. “I have no problem driving on the highway or at night.”
Truman has held his driver’s licence for 65 of his 80 years. Two months before he turned 80 in November, Truman received a letter in the mail explaining he was due for a senior driver renewal program.
This program, taken every two years after the a driver turns 80, requires a senior to pass a vision test, participate in a group discussion, as well as pass a written test.
After reciting a few numbers displayed inside a rectangular box, the driver’s peripheral vision is checked. Should a senior fail the vision test, they must consult a doctor and have visual aid before retaking the test.
Prior to the written test being given out, a discussion between senior participants and a ministry driver improvement counsellor ensues.
Truman said he was the first to finish the written test, which consists of multiple-choice questions and two pages of signs to identify. The whole process took about three hours from the moment the retired landscaper stepped into Markham Civic Centre, a 10-minute drive from home, to the time he walked out with his freshly renewed licence.
On a daily basis, many of Truman drives to St. John’s rehabilitation centre, now part of Sunnybrook hospital, where he is president of St. John’s Hospital Volunteer Association. He said that if he didn’t have his licence, depending on others would make him feel a loss of freedom.
“Once you can’t go where you want to go, instantly, you lose that independence. Once you start depending on taxis, buses, streetcars…it takes a lot away from the individual,” he said, adding that it would be especially difficult to travel in winter without a vehicle.
Once a week, Truman hops into his car with his 75-year-old wife Helen and carpools with two other seniors to Edithvale Community Centre to play cards. One of Truman’s backseat passengers is 80-year-old Audrey Cox, who voluntarily gave up her keys a year ago.
The retired bookkeeper’s late husband was a police officer who was nine years her senior. He gave up his keys when he was 80 years old, and advised her to do the same when she reached that age.
“He turned to me and said ‘Don’t you be driving when you turn 80 either because people don’t seem to know what they’re doing,’” Cox said. She also added that, during her last years of having her licence, she no longer enjoyed driving because she found it difficult to concentrate on so many places at once.
Cox, who usually takes a $6 to $9 taxi ride to go from places such as the store or her hairdresser, said she has never felt a loss of independence since giving up her licence. If the need requires her to travel further, she has her family to drive her or “a good neighbour who will take me around if they’re available.”
Although Truman believes there are both good and bad drivers at any given age, he relishes the fact that there is a program to refresh seniors on road safety.
“I think it’s great that the province does test people,” he said. “I do think it’s good that we have something for seniors to test their ability and skill of driving, especially in a city like Toronto, where you’ve got to have your wits.”
Carol Libman is the advocacy consultant at CARP, an association that is committed to “ a new vision of aging for Canada”. She has gone through the program three times before and says that the counsellors aim to refresh seniors about the rules of the road and not to take away their licence, like some seniors fear.
“The instructors that I’ve come across are very friendly and helpful,” the 84 year old said. “Everyone that I have met has said ‘we’re not here to fail you, we’re here to discuss with you and have a refresher course.’”
Libman goes a step further. She is a strong believer of refresher courses that should be given to drivers every few years, regardless of their age.
“A lot of people are good drivers, a lot of people are not so good drivers, and probably more people should have refresher courses from time to time no matter what age they are, and reminders of the rules of the road and courtesy on the road.” She said.
According to an e-mail from Bob Nichols, spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation, senior collision rates have declined since improving the renewal program in late 2000’s.
“Since 2005, the average fatal collision rate for senior drivers has dropped by 49 per cent compared to the five years prior to the program’s implementation.” he said.
An additional road test may be administered to seniors who have trouble comprehending the material in the group discussion, or who have accumulated demerit points in the previous two years.
This test is administered by a DriveTest examiner, who will ask seniors to perform three-point turns, parallel parking, yielding at stop signs, etc. If the senior fails the on-road test, their licence will be downgraded to G1 until they try again.
Libman’s job requires her to answer questions from online readers, most of whom are seniors. She often hears seniors do not fear the possibility of an on-road test, but are concerned they would be tested on things they may no longer did.
“They don’t mind taking the test…[but] they don’t drive on the highway anymore and they don’t drive at night anymore. They are worried about having to take the test which took them on the highway,” she said. “I mean they’re cognitively fine, except they haven’t driven on the highway for years and don’t feel comfortable doing it.”