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Driving change: Lakehead centre helping evaluate older drivers

Submitted by Hillary Maxwell, Lakehead University - November 3, 2018

As Thunder Bay’s population ages, there are more senior drivers on our roads than ever before. The vast majority of older drivers are very safe.

While age alone does not determine driving skills, age is associated with changes in health status that may affect one’s ability to drive safely. To support the independence and mobility afforded to seniors by driving – and to ensure that our roads are as safe as possible – we need to accurately and efficiently identify drivers whose driving may be affected by health conditions.

Researchers at the Centre for Research on Safe Driving (CRSD) at Lakehead University are playing an important role in improving screening and evaluation methods for older drivers. While the ‘gold standard’ for driver assessment is an on-road test, this method can be expensive, inconvenient, stressful, and, in some cases, unsafe.

“It is not always the best option to put a driver on the road to determine if they should be allowed to drive,” said Dr. Michel Bédard, the Director of the CRSD.

nov-3-2018-michel-bedard-driving-simulat

Dr. Michel Bédard and his team have created an efficient way to test driving skills using a series of pen-and-paper tests. The driving simulator in this photo can be used for further testing.

A recently published study conducted by researchers at the CRSD and St. Joseph's Care Group (SJCG) focuses on the value of a series of quick pen-and-paper tests in identifying drivers in need of more in-depth evaluation. If the pen-and-paper tests determine that an in-depth look at driving performance is needed, the driver may be subsequently evaluated through physical tests, a simulator, or an on-road test. 

Published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, this work earned a Best Article Award at the 2018 annual conference of the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Much to the delight of the authors of the study, the research has been put into practice.

Stephanie Schurr, an occupational therapist with SJCG’s Outpatient Neurology Rehabilitation Program, praises the screening protocol.

“I am more confident making decisions using it because I understand the process that was used to set the criteria, and this allows me to counsel my clients appropriately,” Schurr said. “For example, I can say to them that their results indicate that they would be unlikely to pass a driving test. I'm really proud that this is a home-grown but now internationally recognized approach.”

CRSD researchers are also conducting research to streamline the in-depth driving evaluation process required for drivers whose safety is borderline. This research will foster a better understanding of the health conditions that make some drivers unsafe and create opportunities to enhance rehabilitation opportunities for drivers.

For this project, CRSD researchers are collaborating with Partners in Rehab, a local provider of community therapy services and sole MTO approved driver assessment centre within Northwestern Ontario.

Lori Knott, an occupational therapist providing in-depth driver assessments at Partners in Rehab, sees the project as promising.

“It’s important to make evidence informed decisions with respect to drivers' fitness to drive, especially with an aging population,” Knott said.

“As the population ages, there will be increased demand for assessments that are reliable and valid in determining fitness-to-drive. We want to know if there is a more cost-effective method that keeps drivers who are fit to drive on the road and clearly distinguish who is not fit to drive.”

Ultimately, this work, combined with the work done by CRSD researchers on driver training programs, sets the stage for greater independence and mobility for seniors while achieving safer roads.

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