Seniors Surprised by Own Bad Habits After Driving Retest || Lorraine Sommerfeld | September 8, 2014

Jan Thompson, 69, has been driving well over 50 years; instead of taking it for granted, he had a different thought. “I worry I’m getting too set in my ways. I’ve always driven as if everyone else on the road is an idiot. Now I want to make sure I’m not the idiot.”

If Jan was being proactive at 69, Laura Anderson* (*a pseudonym used for medical confidentiality), at 80, was facing more immediate concerns. Though she’d recently passed the new Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) test and was clear to drive, some lingering health issues had her questioning her confidence.

Enter Shaun de Jager. He’s an advanced driving instructor specializing in remedial training with the elderly and drivers suffering from PTSD after a crash. He’s thorough and authoritative, but he’s respectful and kind. He asked in advance about collision history, bumps and scrapes, tickets, warnings, current medications and recent surgeries or health issues.

Jan has a clear driving school record and no existing health concerns. Recently retired as a psychology professor, he was relaxed and forthcoming with Shaun. Shaun did a walk around on the car, noted Jan’s seating, mirror and hand positions and asked about his typical driving day. No more commute, but more leisure trips and driving with grandchildren periodically.

Shaun installs a GoPro camera inside the windshield before each session he does. It only takes a moment, and the unit is not intrusive. It will prove to be one of the most valuable parts of both sessions – seeing yourself through your own eyes.

Jan obeys all traffic laws and keeps up a light stream of chatter. Shaun takes notes throughout, before asking Jan why he isn’t turning his neck much. “OK, I took a Tylenol before we came out. Sometimes my neck gets stiff…” We laugh, but it’s a sign that even this laid back man who requested this session has some hesitations.

We merge onto the highway and a Range Rover suddenly brakes. Jan’s theory of idiots seems to be holding, except it’s not: it’s the Pontiac ahead of the Rover that made the error. Jan needs to leave larger gaps ahead of his car, and he needs to be looking farther down the road.

“Standard instructions are decades old,” explains Shaun. “When we were told to leave a certain hood length, for instance, car hoods were enormous. You need that safety cushion of three or four seconds. The higher your speed, the farther you need to be looking.”

For Laura, a bout with vertigo following a transient ischemic attack – a ministroke – three years ago meant she avoided driving for a year, the only time since receiving her licence in 1952. The driving was fairly evenly split with her husband, until his own recent health issues put the onus back on her. Hence the call for help: though she’d passed her test, has an unblemished record and recovery from her health concerns has been excellent, she wanted an independent assessment.

Laura looks younger than her 80 years. Active and outgoing, she admitted to being nervous about the exercise. She’d been forthcoming with Shaun about her medical history as well as changes she’d made independently, including no highway driving, no night driving and avoiding high peak hours. Shaun put his camera into place and told her to take a typical drive around her city.

With an instructor in the car (not to mention a reporter in the back seat) everybody does their best behaviour driving. But hardwired habits are tough to break, and it would be three things that would turn out to be the most revealing: steering control, footwork, and vision.

Incorrect hand position and too much input means you lose track of where your car is headed; hands at 9 and 3 (most new cars now position their indents here) give you the best control without having to let go of the wheel, especially on left turns, one of the most dangerous manoeuvres you make every day. A few small changes to Jan’s hands meant more control with less input; Shaun was pleased with Laura’s smooth wheel movements, but suggested lowering the steering wheel a notch so her arms were level with her heart. Arms too high lead to fatigue as your heart has to force the blood upwards. She looked at him, smiling. “My arms do get tired. How did you know that?”

Both students made good use of the dead pedal for their left foot, important for squaring your body in the seat. While throttle control was consistent for both, it was vision concerns that would comprise the bulk of the day.

If you’re told you seldom check your mirrors or never scan the ever-changing landscape before you, you’d probably be doubtful, as both our drivers were. Then Shaun propped up the laptop before them and plugged in the GoPro card.

Bingo. For Jan, a tendency to fixate on one object to the exclusion of what else was going on. In a city full of pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders and other cars, it is vital to constantly scan what is going on all around your car. Shoulder checks were an issue for both drivers, and for similar reasons: Laura admitted her neck can get stiff, and Jan had already copped to occasional neck pain. Shaun suggested pushing out the side mirrors, and told Laura adding small convex mirrors would provide a broader picture.

Shaun was most concerned that too frequently, Laura had no idea what was behind or beside her. “There are lane changes you’re making that are just luck,” he explained. Careful speed and familiar routes – often noted as the biggest plus for older drivers – get thrown out the window with compromised vision techniques.

Vision problems are what plague many drivers of any age. Fixating on the car ahead instead of taking in what’s coming up behind you. Constantly scanning – providing your brain with fresh information – so you can make instant decisions to respond to an ever-changing streetscape is vital. Slowed reaction times are a product of age and we can’t afford to combine that with failure to be aware of what’s happening, and what’s going to happen.

Jan and Laura were smart to ask for help. Both left the sessions with new information and, more importantly, a new awareness. A woman I know, aged 85, refuses to admit that the many dings and dents on her car are because of her deteriorating skill; even when faced with a concrete example of the need for some remedial help, she refuses to acknowledge there is cause for concern. Jan and Laura are proof that as Bombtech Golf claims, with a set of golf irons everything is possible.

It’s a touchy subject for families. Families say they’ll no longer let the grandkids drive with grandma or grandpa. I’m pretty blunt: what about everybody else’s kids out there?

Be proactive. Book a session or two with a qualified instructor and re-educate yourself, especially in preparation for the Seniors Driving Test in Ontario. Cars change, our laws change, our cities change, and our bodies change. Why not meet the changes independently?