Licensed Ontario drivers who turn 80 must pass a written test, a vision test, and take part in a group education session every two years. Ontario doctors are required by law to report patients who have medical conditions that may affect their driving. However, most doctors are not trained to detect dementia in drivers or other at-risk drivers. Many doctors may not know how to identify these diseases in their patients without specialized equipment. This is the concern expressed by Canadian medical researchers.

A Canadian Medical Association Journal article suggested that there is a growing concern that doctors don’t have the tools to assess the driving skills of drivers with dementia. The researchers are calling for improved education and assessments to help doctors better recognize dementia.

A recent Toronto Sun article made reference to a national study that researchers hope will help doctors identify seniors who may no longer be fit to drive. The study, just under way, will monitor more than 1,000 drivers aged 70 and over in seven cities for five years. It will look at how medical conditions affect a person’s physical and cognitive abilities, with the hope of developing a diagnostic tool to help doctors better identify when an older driver is at risk.

A decade ago, a coroner’s inquest into the death of a 42 year old Toronto woman raised questions about the issue of safety and elderly drivers. Beth Kidnie was struck, and then dragged under the car of an 84 year old driver. The inquest heard that unfit elderly drivers are slipping through the cracks. The jury at Beth Kidnie’s inquest made several recommendations to the Ministry of Transportation, including changes to the Highway Traffic Act, that would give doctors more responsibility to recognize unsafe elderly drivers. Another key recommendation was a graduated de-licensing program that would see certain privileges revoked through a series of drivers’ exams.

Although senior drivers are involved in almost half as many fatal collisions as teenage drivers, they are involved in a larger number of collisions given the number of kilometres they drive. Last month’s death of a 31 year old Toronto pedestrian who was struck and killed by an 83 year old driver has again raised the sensitive subject of when seniors should hang up their car keys.

As the population continues to age, by 2011 the oldest Baby Boomers (those born in 1946) will reach 65 and the proportion of people aged 65 and over will start to increase rapidly. This shift in the population size of the elderly will have far-reaching effects, especially on our healthcare system.

A major issue facing us in the future is the incidence of dementia. More than fifty percent of the residents in nursing homes are affected by dementia. One in every 13 seniors over the age of 65 has Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia. By age 85 one-third have some form of dementia and by age 95 more than half do.