Seniors have a reputation as bad drivers. Research shows that generally speaking, that’s an undeserved reputation

Seniors have a reputation as bad drivers. Research shows that generally speaking, that’s an undeserved reputation
Photo Credit: Brian Ray/Canadian Press

Senior citizens and driving: bad reputation is not deserved

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The general perception is that elderly drivers are bad drivers. Strangely enough even many seniors think seniors are not good drivers.

But that’s not necessarily what a researcher in Ottawa has discovered in years of study.

Sylvain Gagnon (PhD) is a professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa and Director of the Cognitive Ageing and Driving Lab.

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Sylvain Gagnon (PhD) is a professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa and Director of the Cognitive Ageing and Driving Lab.
Sylvain Gagnon (PhD) is a professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa and Director of the Cognitive Ageing and Driving Lab. © U Ottawa

Professor Gagnon says senior citizens want to keep driving as it gives them a strong sense of autonomy and independence, and it’s important for society to help them maintain their autonomy as long as it’s safe.  Several studies at other institutions have shown a marked health decline in seniors who give up the car keys, both emotionally and physically.

Gagnon, who started working on issues involving older drivers some 11 years ago, says the generalization that older drivers are unsafe, is not borne out by his testing or statistics.

He says as they age, elderly drivers begin to compensate for any deficiencies. For example if eyesight is not so good, then they tend to no longer drive at night, or if reflexes not so quick, they will tend to avoid driving in rush hours or on busy streets.

An interesting development in personal ability opinions he discovered was the result of a questionnaire asking different age groups  what their chances were to have an accident in several proposed situations compared to “average” drivers in their age group, and average drivers in the other age groups.

Driving simulator used in testing at the Laboratory of Cognitive Ageing at the University of Ottawa
Driving simulator used in testing at the Laboratory of Cognitive Ageing at the University of Ottawa © U Ottawa

It turns out that all drivers, young, experienced (adult), and seniors all consider themselves better than the “average” driver of the other age groups, and all seniors also consider themselves better drivers than the “average” senior driver.

Professor Gagnon says that in his simulations elderly drivers generally perform very well.

He does point out that refresher training after age 75 in some cases has provided for a better elderly driver, but that again, generally speaking elderly drivers do not deserve the incorrect label of being bad drivers, and as long as they are physically and mentally able to drive, age should be no limitation on letting them continue to take the wheel.

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3 comments on “Senior citizens and driving: bad reputation is not deserved
  1. Stephane Fournier says:

    Being a driving coach in British Columbia, I have discovered that everybody needs refresher training as they pass from one group to the other ( young to adult to older adults finally to seniors), not only those each phase of driving bring new challenges and accumulated bad habits but the technology in cars and roads changes as well. We specialize in car accident victims and getting them over their anxieties/fears after the accident and teach them how to never be in a similar situation again, but the need for refresher training is there for everyone!

  2. david says:

    Professor Gagnon should visit places where seniors are plentiful like my hometown of Victoria. Senior drivers are out there and in many cases should not be driving. They are easy to spot. Driving far too slow, driving slow in the fast lane because they can see the white line on the outside of the roadway but cannot see any lines in the center because they are not visible. Driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Driving on the outside because they can see the white lines and/or the concrete barriers which gives them some indication of where they are. Stopped 20 feet behind the car in front because they don’t have good depth perception and cannot tell how far the car is in front of them. Numerous accidents where the driver is confused and steps on the gas instead of the brake. we have seniors driving into store fronts and through the plate glass windows for this reason. Spend an hour in any of our parking lots and watch as a senior driver backs into a parked car and then drives away. Why do they drive away well first they aren’t sure they hit something or are afraid that this will signal the police to demand a driver check. Another indication is the number of drivers getting directions from their wives of when or where to turn, speed up or slow down. They are easy to spot and are quite common here. The other problem is as the professor pointed out that senior drivers consider themselves better than average – they do not recognize they are a hazard. I had a friend who was a terrible driver and continued to drive despite the obvious fact that he should not be driving. What finally clinched it was when he had to take an eye test and “discovered” he was totally blind in one eye!

    • Stephane Fournier says:

      In some of those cases you might be right, but in other cases it’s simply a question of training these seniors to compensate for their slower reflexes, vision, cognitive abilities and learn how their habits are actually creating problematic even dangerous situations around them! There is a very specific approach that we at PSRI-IRCP created to address this!