[AP photo]

Pilar Hicks leaves the courthouse in Toronto after she was convicted of hitting and killing Elizabeth Kidnie. Hicks lost her driverís license and was sentenced to 15 months of house arrest.

In Toronto, an 85-year-old driver drags a pedestrian to death, never realizing she's hit anything. It raises a question close to home in Florida: Should older drivers be subject to stricter testing?

By Susan Taylor Martin © St. Petersburg Times, published August 9, 2001

One April night last year, 85-year-old Pilar Hicks of Toronto was heading home from her son's house when she ran a red light.

Hicks later told police she didn't feel it when her 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass hit something. Nor did she see the frantic woman banging on the hood. Not even after Hicks pulled into her driveway and got out of the car did she notice the mangled body lying in a pool of blood.

It was that of Elizabeth Kidnie, a 42-year-old mother of three, who had been out for her evening walk when Hicks ran over her and dragged her almost a half mile to her death.

Two weeks ago, a sobbing Hicks appeared before an Ontario judge, who said her ability to drive was "impaired not by alcohol, not by drugs, but perhaps by age." He sentenced her to 15 months of house arrest and yanked her license for life.

Some Canadians thought the punishment was fair. Others considered it too light. But either way, one of the most horrific accidents in recent Ontario history has refueled a debate familiar to Floridians: Should older drivers be subject to tougher testing requirements than younger ones? photo

"Let's face it. We slow down," said one of dozens of Toronto Star readers who joined a discussion on the paper's Internet site. "Our reaction time is not what it was at a younger age. Our hearing and vision are less acute. We are less able to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of traffic around us. If we pass the test, great. If not, pull the license."

Left: Elizabeth Kidnie, a 42-year-old mother of three, was dragged nearly a half mile after she was hit by a car driven by 85-year-old Pilar Hicks.

But seniors' organizations say it would be unfair to target all older drivers because of one tragic case.

"It just upsets us terribly that every time there is an issue about a senior we have to go through the mill again," says Shirley Dmytruk, president of the United Senior Citizens of Ontario. "For the most part, I find our older drivers are very careful, very cautious. Every case should be judged on its own merit -- I get upset when they put us in the same barrel and treat us all the same."

Ontario, the most populous of Canada's 10 provinces, already has what is considered one of North America's strictest testing standards for older motorists.

Under the Senior Drivers Program, started in 1996, those over 70 who are involved in an at-fault accident are required to take vision and knowledge tests. Drivers over 80, regardless of driving record, must be retested every two years to renew their licenses.

Moreover, doctors in Ontario are required to report to the transportation ministry any motorist who has a medical condition that could affect driving ability.

Authorities say the program has resulted in nearly a 40 percent drop in the number of fatal accidents involving seniors. In 1999, 2.7 percent of Ontario drivers 75 and older were involved in collisions, compared to 6.9 percent of drivers aged 20 to 24.

However, Ontario's program used to be even stricter. CARP, a nationwide seniors organization that is the equivalent of the AARP in the United States, successfully lobbied the government to drop a requirement that all drivers over 80 be road tested every two years.

"The feeling at the time was that the road test was not accurate because it added extra pressure to people and they became overly nervous," says Bill Gleberzon, a CARP executive. "People that could drive would fail the test. By removing that extra degree (of pressure), they've found that the tests that do exist are sufficient and satisfactory."

Gleberzon says many older drivers are self-policing, restricting their trips to daylight hours or less-crowded roads.

But doesn't the biggest danger come from those not alert enough to realize their limitations?

"If someone is in that kind of mental state, it should be assumed they are seen or known by a doctor who has a legal obligation to remove their ability to drive," Gleberzon replies.

In Florida, which has 1.85-million drivers 70 and over, pressure from interest groups has killed efforts to toughen standards for older motorists. For a driver of any age with a clean record, it is possible to renew a license for a total of 18 years without taking even a vision test.

However, "The fact there are no age-specific requirements doesn't mean there's no recourse," says Bob Sanchez of the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "There is a procedure by which drivers of any age whose skills are in question can be subjected to a medical review."

Floridians aged 15 to 19 have the highest rate of accidents, 5.89 per 10,000 licensed drivers. The rate steadily declines until age 70, when it begins to climb again. Drivers 85 and older are involved in crashes at a rate of 3.24 per 10,000.

For both Canada and the United States, the question of when a person is too old to drive is not an easy one to answer -- nor one that is likely to go away.

Notes Sanchez: "There's a large number of baby boomers who will be approaching retirement, so the issue is likely to grow in public awareness."

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An age-old question of driving privileges

The Toronto Star's Web site has been hosting a discussion of the accident in which 85-year-old Pilar Hicks struck and killed Beth Kidnie. Here are some excerpts:

  • "The driver got too light a sentence. If she wasn't too old to drive, then she isn't too old to go to prison for killing an innocent woman. I would road test all drivers at 25, 30, 40, and 50 and every five years after that. . . . We must never forget driving is a privilege, not a right." -- Sarah Christiansen
  • "I'm not all that far from being a senior myself. I would still like to see seniors tested on a regular basis. Let's face it. We slow down. Our reaction time is not what it was at a younger age. Our hearing and vision are less acute. We are less able to keep up with the ever increasing pace of the traffic around us. If we pass the test, great. If not, pull the license." -- James Gregoire
  • "Sometimes tragedies just happen, and all the navel-gazing, contemplation, public inquiries and royal commissions will not change what has been or prevent it from happening again. There is no need to limit drivers' licenses to a certain age maximum. Most old people are smart enough to know when to stop driving. And the ones that don't should be punished if they hurt someone." -- Don C.
  • "There is no reason to restrict one's driving privilege beyond the age of 80 unless one has a medical condition that can affect one's driving ability. The kind of accident that killed Beth Kidnie is rare. Look at the statistics: Most fatal accidents do not involve an elderly driver -- they involve the young. So should there be no driving before 80?" -- Robert M.
  • "We condemn and imprison those whose reflexes and awareness while driving are impaired by alcohol or drugs. Why should sensitivity prevail when a driver's age and diminished physical capabilities result in the same type of traffic fatality?" -- M.J. Bakk