Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Make all drivers prove they're worthy

Most of us never have to show we're still fit to drive

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Perhaps it was an accident, perhaps not. But it is the thin edge of the wedge on a public debate we likely should have been having some time ago.

This past Tuesday afternoon, a car driven by an 86-year-old man was backing out of a stall in a bank parking lot on McPhillips Street near Machray Avenue. The car struck a 10-year-old girl who was walking on the sidewalk that runs alongside the lot. She remains in hospital in stable condition.

Winnipeg police are still investigating the collision but that has not stopped the public debate about older drivers. Should they be forced to give up their licences at a specified age? At the very least, should they be forced to undergo mandatory retesting to ensure they are able to safely operate a motor vehicle?

Many will see the incident this week as proof enough that something needs to be done. Unfortunately, as has been noted in this space before, the plural of anecdote is not data. One cannot rush to a solution before understanding the problem.

First off, Manitoba Public Insurance says older drivers don't constitute the greatest safety threat. Younger drivers, especially those who have just won the right to drive, are statistically the most dangerous. That explains why, for example, the province introduced the graduated-licensing system to slowly award younger drivers the privileges to drive at night, or with passengers. This is effective public policy.

MPI and other Canadian sources believe older drivers do not present the same risk. Notwithstanding the fact that many no longer possess the vision or reflexes of younger drivers, they are generally more cautious. Or put another way, they take fewer chances. While that is generally true, efforts to examine the problem around the world have come up with conflicting conclusions.

Concern over aging drivers is top of mind almost everywhere because, particularly in developed countries, the population is getting older. And because with every single incident, the focus shifts rather quickly to policies to examine the capacity of older people to drive. California requires drivers older than 70 who are involved in two or more crashes in a year to undergo retesting. Efforts to institute similar measures in other states have been defeated by groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons.

The politics in Canada is similar. Manitoba Attorney General Andrew Swan was only too happy to quash the idea of mandatory testing for older drivers. Why? Older Manitobans are more likely to vote than younger citizens. Regardless of the practical advantages of a mandatory retesting strategy, applying it only to those over the age of 65 would be political suicide. The province, through MPI, has introduced some unpopular but effective policies -- such as forcing vehicle owners to install immobilizers to cut down on auto theft -- but mandatory retesting for older drivers would be a direct assault on the most politically potent constituency in the province.

Solutions? There is a strong case to be made for regular, mandatory retesting for all drivers, regardless of age. There is ample proof on the streets of Winnipeg every day that drivers not only do not know the rules of the road, they are completely ignorant of the principles of defensive driving. Even simple things such as the rules of engagement at an intersection with four-way stop signs seem to elude an alarmingly high proportion of the total drivers.

As it stands now, the gross majority of us never have to demonstrate we have retained knowledge of traffic laws or safe driving techniques. As well, we more or less get to decide ourselves when it's time to give up the keys. Other than the inconvenience, is there not a strong argument in favour of having drivers tested every 10 years until the results show they're not up to it anymore? I'd hazard a guess that an alarmingly high number of drivers under the age of 65 would lose their licences just by demonstrating the abject stupidity and poor judgment that distinguishes their driving performance on a daily basis.

There does not seem to be a jurisdiction in the world that has taken that approach. Perhaps politicians fear it would be deemed too unpopular. However, if the focus were solely on safety, surely after a period of adjustment, we would see the benefits of having to prove on a regular basis that we deserve to be behind the wheel.

It is unlikely any government will pick solely on older people when it comes to improving road safety. However, a system where all of us, regardless of age, were asked to prove that we still deserve to hold a driver's licence might just be something that everyone could support.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2012 A4

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