MONTREAL - So when, exactly, should elderly drivers hang up their car keys?
Right now, there's no national standard for evaluating them, something researchers at Candrive, a program drawing on scientists from 10 Canadian universities, hope to help fix.
They're currently working on developing a reliable way for doctors to figure out which seniors can be safely on the road.
Malcolm Man-Son-Hing, one of the program's principal researchers, says that in seven of the 10 provinces, physicians are legally responsible for evaluating their patients and reporting them to the government.
Those decisions affect who will and who won't get to slide behind the wheel.
"Yet there is very little scientific evidence on which to base the decision and that's led to a variation in practice across the country," Man-Son-Hing said in a telephone interview from Campbell River, B.C.
Some doctors are more strict than others, he said, "and that leads to basically having your driver's licence often being based on who your physician is rather than any medical condition."
Man-Son-Hing, who is affiliated with the University of Ottawa, noted that a certain percentage of the participants are expected to crash their cars during the study's five-year duration.
One of the study's main objectives is to determine the characteristics of who gets involved in an accident and who doesn't.
"We would be able to develop a screening tool to help clinicians, including family physicians, determine among their patients who are safe and not safe to drive," he said.
In fact, the driving records of the participants for the three years prior to starting the program made up part of the research material studied by the scientists.
"Interestingly, their crash rate is exactly the same as you would expect in the overall older population so that gives us some reassurance that we're getting a reasonably representative sample of older driver," he said.
"Seventy-year-olds, per mile driven, are one of the highest crash-rate groups per age group similar to those of teenage drivers," Man-Son-Hing added.
The project, which aims to improve the safety and quality of life for senior drivers, gets high marks from retired Ottawa physician William Jeanes, who has been participating in various Candrive research since the program started in 2002.
"The Bible says old people should be dead (after) three score years and 10 but with modern health care and people living with good nutrition and not smoking cigarettes, we're all living into our 90s," says the spry-sounding 92-year-old in a telephone interview.
About 1,000 volunteer seniors from across the country are having their driving habits tracked in the current Candrive study, which is in its second year. Participants are 70 years old and older.
"They have a GPS in my car at the moment which obviously studies where I drive and how I drive and if I exceed the speed limits and if I jam on the brakes very quickly," says Jeanes, who got his driver's licence when he was 16.
The data, he says, will show if he is "an erratic driver or a consistent driver."
"I've found it very interesting to participate." He said he even picked up some tips on how to improve his driving when he was evaluated by a driving instructor.
The drivers being followed live in Victoria, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Ont., Toronto, Hamilton, Ont., Ottawa and Montreal. Man-Son-Hing said researchers chose those areas so a mix of urban and rural driving could be evaluated.
Additional research is expected from Australia, where scientists saw the Canadian study and want to duplicate it.
Man-Son-Hing says participants are met every four months, when the data on the global positioning system chips is collected. They also face a battery of tests every year, with the evaluation taking about three hours.
"We're measuring all the characteristics that we deem could be important to their driving on a yearly basis, whether it be their medical, psychological, social — even their attitudinal characteristics," he said.
Man-Son-Hing wasn't immediately able to comment on the research in progress, however, saying conclusions won't be drawn until the data collection is complete.
The researcher acknowledged that older drivers face heavy stereotyping in the general public as being too slow, too inattentive and a hazard on the road.
"Older drivers aren't dangerous because of age," he said. "In fact, healthy older drivers — and I stress the word 'healthy' — are some of the safest drivers out there.
"They have the most experience and they don't take the risks that younger drivers take."
He said the problem with older drivers is that as they age, they develop more medical conditions that could affect their driving and that these have to be watched.
"It's interesting that a lot of the people who signed up for the study signed up because they felt that older drivers are being persecuted in a certain manner and they wanted to prove that they were good drivers," Man-Son-Hing said.
The Candrive researchers work on a variety of age-related driving issues in addition to the current five-year project which is funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research.
Anthony Quinn, manager of community development for CARP, the Canadian association of retired people, described Candrive as "an important program."
He said the program's research was useful to his association because it helped them formulate policy on such issues as modified drivers' licences for seniors.
Quinn said, for example, that data compiled by Candrive is helpful in determining if there should be restrictions put on some seniors' licences, such as forbidding them from driving at night or on high-speed highways.
He said seniors have many challenges when it comes to driving these days, be it dealing with new technology or stereotypes and they just want to be treated fairly.
"The safety of all drivers is of utmost importance," Quinn said. "We're not pushing to have incapable or ill or unsafe drivers on the road, no matter what their age.
"We want to make sure all the drivers have access to fair policy, that they're not having their privileges changed based on stereotypes or anecdotes," Quinn said. "The Candrive science is something that can really help us defend our points when we're talking to government officials."