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When to stop driving, the age-old question

Toronto, June 5, 2015

By Roshni Jayawardena

An elderly man driving
Photo by BigStock.com

When people consider the impact Canada’s aging population will have on society, they may focus on pension plans or perhaps strains on the health care system. Dr. Tom Schweizer thinks about cars.

“Doctors are asked to identify elderly patients who may not be fit to keep driving, but physicians don’t have the tools to determine when it is really time to take away the keys,” said Dr. Schweizer, director of the Neuroscience Research Program of St. Michael’s Hospital. “At a certain point, aging can hinder driving ability and safety; the trick is knowing when.”

The Ministry of Transportation has awarded Dr. Schweizer’s team $67,400.00 to evaluate Ontario’s senior driver’s license renewal program and answer that question.

Once a driver turns 80, he or she is required to successfully complete the renewal program every two years to keep his or her license. The test is comprised of a vision test, driving record review, group education sessions, two written exercises and, if necessary, a road test.

The study will include 40 patients. Using a functional MRI, Dr. Schweizer will study which areas of the brain are active during simulated driving and during written tests completed on a tablet.

Testing under an MRI requires sophisticated technology that can work safely under high-powered magnets. The tablet and driving simulator - equipped with a steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator – are one-of-a-kind and were developed specifically for Dr. Schweizer’s research.

"We want to determine whether the ministry's mandatory tests challenge the same parts of the brain people actually use when driving," said Dr. Schweizer. "If the tests aren't relevant to safe driving, we hope to develop tests or tools that are more effective.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.