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Driver Dementia
A Growing Concern

A study in the July 2004 Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, led by Dr. Robert Hopkins, estimates there are 34,000 Ontario drivers who have dementia. With an aging driver population, it projects that number will rise to nearly 100,000 by 2028.

The researchers say that drivers in the earliest stage of dementia may not be dangerous, but as their condition progresses they pose more and more risk to themselves and other drivers. Drivers with dementia are two to five times more likely to be involved in a collision than drivers who do not have the condition. Collisions at intersections are very common.

Over the years, road fatalities have dropped significantly in all age groups except 65 and over. Based on distance driven, older drivers have more collisions than any other age group.

According to the Canada Safety Council, dementia is one of several factors that can affect the abilities of older drivers. When it comes to collisions, data is lacking on how dementia stacks up against such factors as: deterioration of eyesight, particularly at night; movement-limiting disabilities such as arthritis and rheumatism; and medications, which can affect driving ability in various ways.

“Seniors who recognize age-related changes and learn how to compensate for them can continue to drive safely for a long time,” says Canada Safety Council president Emile Therien. “Unfortunately, the onset of dementia is much harder to recognize than most other changes.”

Therien notes older drivers tend to be safety conscious. Many choose to drive shorter distances and avoid night driving, busy highways and downtown areas. However, dementia affects memory, concentration and judgement, and these are the very abilities that enable people to deal with their own limitations.

He agrees with Dr. Hopkins’s study that screening procedures are needed to identify senior drivers who may have dementia, and points out that such procedures are already being developed. University of Ottawa researchers, including leading geriatricians from the Faculty of Medicine announced in November 2003 a national multi-centre five-year study called CanDRIVE in which 3,000 to 5,000 drivers over the age of 70 are expected to participate.

Canadian physicians are legally responsible in seven provinces for reporting medically unfit drivers to their respective ministries of transportation. The goal of the University of Ottawa study will be to develop a method to help physicians identify seniors whose medical and functional limitations may make them unfit to drive. Dr. Hopkins’s research team suggested that such procedures should be added to the Ministry of Transportation’s vision and road-sign tests.

So the issue is being addressed — but in the meantime, what should family members do when an aging parent suffers from dementia? If they shouldn’t drive, how can Mom and Dad get around?

Family members must take up the challenge of finding — or providing — the necessary transportation. In the city, taxis and public transit are cost effective (and less expensive overall than keeping a car). Most suburban areas have these services, although access may be less convenient. Rural areas offer few if any transportation options; rides from friends and family are often the only alternative to driving.

Regardless of age, a driver’s licence means independence. In the interest of safety, a ministry of transportation may decide to remove a person’s licence due to a disability such as dementia. With the possibility this will happen more often, society must be willing to provide services to enable that individual to maintain a degree of independence.

 

http://www.safety-council.org

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