When you’re 65: An unwelcome invitation to annual licence renewals

TORONTO, (Nov. 28, 2003) — While thousands of “retired” drivers still log miles for a paycheque — mostly part-time or on weekends — many who live in Ontario are finding that their golden years aren’t so golden.

While all other jurisdictions in Canada and the United States require commercial drivers to undergo regular medical exams and periodic written re-testing after age 65, Ontario is the only one in North America where seniors also must take an annual driving test if they want to hang on to their commercial licence.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) has had this policy in effect since classified licenses were introduced in 1977, and while the Ministry’s own numbers indicate there are only about 2,000 Class A drivers in the province over 65, there will be a lot more of them in the coming years.

Jim Rylance, a 72-year-old driver from Woodstock, Ont., has been driving trucks since the age of 19 and guesses he’s logged over 4.5 million miles. Retired now, he still covers about 1,000 miles a week, part-time, for a small outfit in Woodstock. He says he actually failed one renewal test, adding the examiner flunked him for three errors: not listening for air leaks during the circle check; not checking the coolant level in the radiator (although the rad had a sight glass); and shifting gears during a turn.

While it doesn’t bother him that he needed to be re-tested, Rylance does wonder why, if the MTO is so concerned about the competence of elderly truckers, it administers the same test that’s given to brand new drivers, right down to the circle check, the measure and mark, and the 50-foot backing drill. Nothing in the exam for older drivers would reveal shortcomings related to age, such as eroding cognitive skills, reaction time, decision-making capability, physical dexterity, and visual acuity. Moreover, Ontario is the only jurisdiction in the country to maintain two separate policies for re-testing truck drivers and passenger car operators, who don’t have to submit to exams until after the age of 80.

Asked for a response, MTO liaison officer Emma Dhahak said, “Many older drivers reduce their risk by limiting their driving to low-risk situations such as daytime driving, avoiding freeways, and avoiding busy intersections … However, commercial drivers are required to drive long hours and great distances, thus increasing their exposure to the risk of a collision. If a commercial driver is driving a large truck or bus, there is a greater likelihood that a collision would result in a fatality or injury.”

Professor Eric Hildebrand of the University of New Brunswick’s Dept. of Civil Engineering has conducted extensive research on older drivers. While he agrees with the latter part of Dhahak’s statement, he says there has been no research to date that analyzes possible differences between the characteristics and driving habits of older commercial and passenger car drivers.

Hildebrand believes the MTO’s 65-years-old target is arbitrary. “I don’t think it’s an appropriate age. … There’s nothing magical about that age at all. Our research shows that [skills] don’t start to deteriorate until the early to mid 70s,” he says. “There’s no reason to think that wouldn’t be the exact same for commercial drivers.”

So are commercial drivers the goat in Ontario? “If you want to know if 65 years is a completely subjective benchmark for truck drivers or something you can justify through science or statistics,” Hildebrand says, “Well, that’s a very valid issue someone should be looking at.”

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