Aging Drivers: Canada Needs Senior-Friendly Public Transit – Sooner, Not Later, say experts

By Cindy E. Harnett, Victoria Times Colonist June 18, 2010

Bob Ferguson figures he’ll drive for at least another two years. He’ll be 90 then. His father drove until the age of 92.

Either way, “I want it to be my decision,” said Ferguson, following an Insurance Corporation of British Columbia-sponsored seminar for seniors who are required to take a road test re-examination.

Ferguson’s never had a driving accident, feels healthy, and enjoys getting behind the wheel to travel wherever he wants to go with his wife of nearly 70 years.

“I like to go out for drives,” Ferguson said.

When he gives up his licence, the biggest challenge will be selling his family home near Langford Lake, B.C., in order to move to a more pedestrian-friendly community such as James Bay in Victoria.

“We are pretty much stranded here if we didn’t have a car given the very poor bus service,” Ferguson said.

Canada’s cities are built more for automobiles. The terrain and weather make it difficult for seniors with illnesses or mobility issues to get around withouta car, said Bonnie Dobbs, director of the University of Alberta’s Medically At-Risk Driver Centre and associate professor in family medicine.

“There’s no doubt when you look at the literature in almost every jurisdiction in the world — alternate transportation for seniors is woefully inadequate,” said Dobbs.

Our transportation systems are geared more toward commuters and leisure. And seniors using the system must be high-functioning, said Dobbs.

“For people who have had licences revoked for cognitive impairment, the probability of learning a bus route or a light rapid transit route is pretty low,”
said Dobbs.

If seniors are to retire from driving in record numbers in coming years, communities across Canada must look at providing more forms of transportation, said Dobbs.

“We need to seriously look at other models of alternate transportation that will be appropriate for preserving people’s mobility and independence,” Dobbs

Holly Tuokko, a psychology professor and director of the University of Victoria’s Centre on Aging, said as a society, we have to put the conversation of driving retirement and alternate transportation on the table.

“This is something we should all be thinking about — lobbying for better alternate transportation,” Tuokko said. “This shouldn’t be something that’s a horrifically negative thing to do, to plan for and talk about.”

A recent editorial for the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggested local businesses and community organizations could establish programs such as
the “grocery bus” model, where school buses are used in off-hours on specific days to take seniors to the store and for a coffee before returning them home.

In the United States, Katherine Freund founded the Independent Transportation Network. ITNAmerica is a sort-of chauffeured car co-operative for seniors designed to provide a daily, around-the-clock service that is as much like owning an automobile as possible.

The nationwide, non-profit, door-to-door transportation system provides seniors with a personal transportation account which they fill with a small amount of money that is debited each time they are driven somewhere.

Seniors can fill up their accounts by trading in cars which ITNAmerica then sells, family and friends can deposit money into the account, and people with valid licences can work as volunteer drivers and build up volunteer credits, so that when they retire from driving the money is there. Some staff drivers are paid.

The B.C. government — through the Healthy Living and Sport Ministry — and the B.C. Automobile Association Traffic Safety Foundation has been reviewing this option for years.

“The BCAA Traffic Safety Foundation are actively involved and working with ITNAmerica to look at adapting it to the Canadian environment,” said David Dunne
of the BCAA Traffic Safety Foundation.

The project is “well along the way,” Dunne said. The BCAA and the province are also reviewing the network with the University of Alberta and the Alberta Motor Association.

Adopting the program would require legislative changes that relate to selling used cars and treading on the territory of taxis and buses.

“It’s an ongoing challenge and it’s difficult to make these changes overnight,” Dunne said. “What we need is a wide spectrum of alternatives. In some ways, ITNAmerica is better than having your own vehicle.”

For those individuals for whom driving is no longer an option, their situations need to be addressed in a compassionate, supportive, and community-minded way “with the guiding principle that mobility is a right and a major contributor to greater independence and overall quality of life,” Dunne said.

Alternative transportation options can help seniors maintain their mobility and local involvement but families and communities must also contribute to help seniors make the transition to driving retirement, Dunne said.

Each year nearly 60,000 Canadians over the age of 70 stop driving, according to the BCAA Traffic Safety Foundation.

According to the Canadian Automobile Association, the average annual cost to own and operate a four-door sedan is between $8,500 and $11,500 depending on
the number of kilometres driven.

The cost to own and operate a van ranges from $10,800 to $14,300. Car-sharing provides an affordable alternative to private vehicle ownership.

More economical transportation options to driving may include public transit, taxis, family and friends and volunteer driver services.

At a monthly ICBC-sponsored seminar, Ferguson learns there are also programs that make those transportation options more affordable or more accessible.

Those programs include: the Taxi-Saver program available to people with disabilities; BC Bus Pass Program for low-income seniors; the free Community Travel Training program; and the senior’s discount for BC Transit passes.

For example, the discounted monthly bus pass for a senior 65 and older is $46 compared with a regular adult fare of $80. With the Taxi-Saver program, a
senior with a disability — already registered with the HandyDart transit service — can buy $80 worth of non-transferable taxi dollars for $40 each month.
About six or seven different taxi companies accept the coupons and as in any taxi fare, several people can ride in the same cab at once.

Also popular, according to BC Transit, is the Community Travel Training program which offers an array of one-on-one services, from helping seniors learn
how to get on and off a bus with a wheelchair to devising a personalized bus schedule.

The program can bring a BC Transit bus to a nearby parking lot to help a passenger learn to board and disembark. As well, an agent can accompany first-time busriders to familiarize them with routes and protocols, such as how much and where to pay and how to signal for a stop.

Understanding that some seniors may want discretion, the agents don’t dress like crossing guards, wearing bright vests. Rather, they appear more as travel companions.

The services can also be used by seniors who still drive but want to slowly shift to driving retirement.

Joanna Morton, spokeswoman for BC Transit, said providing services for seniors is a priority.

“They are very important customers to BC Transit and we are providing tools such as the travel training program to arm them with information and empower them to know that transit can be a viable alternative to the car,” Morton said.

About 90 per cent of BC Transit buses are wheelchair accessible with only a few high-floor buses left in the fleet. They will soon be retired, Morton said.

“When we’re talking about seniors and people with mobility issues, that’s certainly a major issue for us and a priority that we want to address,” she said.

“It’s our goal is to be a 100 per cent accessible fleet — that means accessible buses and bus stops,” Morton said.

Other transportation options include handyDart which, if booked in advance, takes people with disabilities — age is not considered a disability — to their preferred destination, whether it’s the casino, a play or the shopping centre.

Volunteer drivers are offered through places such as the James Bay Community Project, the Canadian Cancer Society, and Saanich Volunteer Services — a directory
of such services can usually be found at any local senior’s organization.

There are also commercial home agencies such as Driving Miss Daisy, which offers a door-to-door seniors assistance, accompaniment and transportation.

Despite all the options, Ferguson left the ICBC seminar, took his road test, and passed, much to his relief.

Through friends he’s heard discouraging things about the region’s transportation options for seniors.

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Ferguson said. “If you want to go somewhere you are waiting all the time.”

He’s glad to put off taking for the bus for a little while longer.

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