Should elderly drivers be treated like teenagers?

If driver's licenses for seniors came with restrictions like those imposed on new drivers, the roads could be a lot safer, two researchers argued in an editorial appearing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Monday.

About one in six Canadians who died in car accidents in 2009 were over age 65, a higher proportion than any other age group, University of Toronto professor of medicine Donald Redelmeier and CMAJ deputy editor Matthew Stanbrook said.

Currently, licenses for the elderly are restricted only after a driver accumulates a lot of violations.

This approach is often too late to prevent injuries, Redelmeier and Stanbrook said.

They're arguing for a graduated license program akin to the one for teenagers, which has prohibitions against driving at night, on freeways, or with any blood alcohol level -- even one below the legal limit.

Graduated driver's license programs have been effective, translating into about 100 prevented teen deaths a year in Canada, according to the editorial.

Healthy seniors could bypass the graduated license program with a doctor's certification, the pair says.

Ezra Hauer, a professor emeritus of civil engineering specializing at the University of Toronto, offered a counterpoint on Monday: he says the evidence shows elderly drivers aren't more dangerous than other age groups behind the wheel.

The age-related increase in the crash rate for older drivers is modest and does not surpass that for teenagers, Hauer wrote in a letter to CMAJ.

Hauer, who specializes in road safety, says seniors are overrepresented in accident statistics for several reasons -- primarily because they are more likely to die in a car crash than young people.

Elderly drivers also drive less on freeways and more on surface streets with multiple intersections, where the crash rate is higher and crashes are more likely to involve several vehicles.

When seniors are compared with nonsenior drivers who drive about the same amount, the overrepresentation disappears completely, Hauer said.

Hauer also pointed out that when people 85 years of age or older are involved in fatal crashes, four out of five times the victim is the driver; for drivers between 16 and 59 years old, two-thirds of the casualties in fatal crashes are other people.

Redelmeier and Stanbrook acknowledged that the relationship between age and driving ability is complicated, but pointed out that one in four Canadians over 65 years old with dementia still holds a driver's license, and one in five of that same group still drives regularly.

Graduated licensing programs work to keep young drivers safe. Let's extend the same benefits to seniors, they said.