Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Bill Dickinson.

No matter what your age, there are few symbols of personal freedom as meaningful as driving a car. An automobile is not just what we rely on to get to work or the grocery store, it also bolsters our independence. The need to maintain self-reliance becomes even more pronounced as we age. For mature drivers, therefore, being able to drive can become an integral part of their independence, sociability and vitality.

Despite the importance of driving, however, older Canadians have sometimes faced an uphill battle when it comes to protecting their right to drive. In provinces like Ontario and BC, drivers over the age of 80 must undergo specialized tests to successfully renew their driver’s license.

In Alberta and Quebec, as of the age of 75, drivers seeking to renew their licence must submit medical reports. To make matters worse, cognition testing may involve computer-based exams that some drivers may find intimidating. Furthermore, often those who failed a written exam would be required to take a road test in an unfamiliar vehicle, rather than in their own car.

Standards for testing mature drivers vary greatly from province to province. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons/The NRMA.

With no unilateral testing standards and medical requirements, it’s no wonder that critics often ask whether its age discrimination rather than hard facts that dictate licence renewal policies for aging drivers.

Luckily, there are some exciting innovations that aim to make driver testing more accurate and equitable. In March of this year, B.C. introduced its Enhanced Road Assessment program. Mandatory computer cognitive testing was replaced with a Driver Medical Examination Report and older drivers will only undergo further scrutiny if a medical condition or accident report suggest their driving abilities may be impaired. Drivers are also permitted to take the road test in their own vehicle.

Another new approach to mature driver testing set to be released this year is Candrive. Developed by a research group led by Dr. Shawn Marshall, this test would be administered by healthcare professionals when a patient has concerns about his or her driving ability. Candrive assesses a driver’s risk category by measuring a variety of elements that predict how someone will respond in numerous driving situations (like icy conditions, for example). The decision to continue driving is then up to the individual in consultation with their doctor.

These new kinds of tests show promise that licence testing for older drivers will be more fair and relevant and ensure people can retain their independence for as long as possible.

The most recent Stats Canada data from 2009 reports that 3.25 million people aged 65 and over had a driver’s licence. Of that number, about 200,000 were aged 85 and over.

A survey conducted by State Farm in Canada said that 55 percent of respondents would keep driving past 80 years of age. Drivers are reluctant to give up their licence, according to 75 percent of respondents.

Clearly, the road less travelled will be filled with mature drivers for many years to come, thanks to fairer testing now being introduced.