Doctors delicately discuss driving concerns with seniors

A Sudbury geriatrician says it's difficult to bring up the issue of driving and licence suspension with patients.

Some seniors have to take an expensive test to be allowed back on the road

A Sudbury geriatrician says it's difficult to bring up the issue of driving and licence suspension with patients.

In Ontario, a person can lose a drivers licence if a doctor writes a medical recommendation to the Ministry of Transportation.

Someone who frequently writes those recommendations is Sudbury geriatrician Dr. Jo-Anne Clarke.

Clarke said doctors have to delicately and diplomatically bring up the conversation of when to hang up the keys.

"It's important to focus the conversation around abilities and not age," she said.

Higher insurance premiums

Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal has given the green light to insurance companies to charge elderly drivers higher premiums.

In a recent decision, the tribunal said it accepted evidence that drivers over the age of 80 are more crash-prone.

The case was brought by a 92-year-old Toronto man who argued age discrimination after his 62-year-old daughter was quoted $250 less for car insurance.

He argued that one alternative to charging more would be to base premiums on the total distance travelled.

But the tribunal ruled that is impractical, and said elderly drivers simply pose a higher risk that warrants higher charges.

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"So it's not about how old you are, as much as what limitations you might have developed because of chronic disease or illness."

Clarke said it's difficult to have the conversation, because often patients see doctors as their advocates.

Sometimes Clarke has no choice but to ask her patients to take an expensive driving test to prove they can still mentally and physically handle a vehicle.

But she also knows the value of a dollar on a fixed income and "so asking one of my patients to pay $700 [is difficult] when that could be the amount of their entire pension for the month."

Intimidating option

Clarke and her fellow doctors don't make the final call on who can drive and who can't.

But she is legally required to tell the Ministry of Transportation if she thinks there's a reason one of her patients should put it in park for good — and that ultimately means facing a driving test.

Clarke said she wishes there were some more affordable, less intimidating options for seniors who — on top of being afraid of losing their independence — might have to use an unfamiliar vehicle and sometimes in a new city.

Those things can unfairly tip the testing scales for people who are still good drivers under regular conditions, she noted.

Sudbury retiree Lionel Rudd pointed to another such variable.

"If you look at the modern car, you've got lots of gadgets and gizmos that you didn’t have before," he said.

Clarke remarked that, if seniors do lose their licenses, resources must be available in the community to ensure they're not house-bound.