Inquest sidesteps age issue

Death of woman who was dragged under 84-year-old's car was neither homicide nor accident, jury says

By JOHN SAUNDERS

Saturday, March 16, 2002  Print Edition, Page A20
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TORONTO -- A coroner's jury has failed to decide why an 84-year-old driver kept going after running down a chemical-company executive two years ago, dragging her to her death entangled in the car's undercarriage.

The case has provoked debate about drivers impaired by age or medical problems or both. Yesterday, the jury recommended steps to help detect such people and get them off off the road, but it left the reason for Beth Kidnie's death undetermined.

Ms. Kidnie, 42, treasurer of DuPont Canada Inc. and mother of three, was crossing Bloor Street West on a green light near her Etobicoke home when Pilar Hicks's 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass hit her.

She bounced off the front of the car and slammed her hands on the hood before she was hit again and disappeared under the car, a witness said. The pavement was marked for almost a kilometre as Ms. Hicks proceeded slowly and erratically to her own driveway, where the body broke free.

What was in Ms. Hicks' mind remains unknown. She was convicted of criminal negligence causing death last summer, receiving a 15-month conditional sentence with no jail time and a lifetime driving ban. She did not testify at her trial or the two-week inquest.

Coroner's counsel Tom Schneider said the five-member jury rejected possible findings of accident or homicide (in an inquest, homicide means killing another person but does not necessarily imply a crime). The jurors were entitled to settle on "undetermined" if they had difficulty choosing between the other two findings, he said.

The jury explicitly avoided labelling older drivers unsafe. "While medical impairment is more prevalent with age, it can occur at any age," it said, declaring that efforts to weed out incapable drivers "should focus on medical condition without regard to age."

In three pages of recommendations, it urged the Ontario government to explore graduated delicensing, a concept that could mean limits on driving at night or on major highways. It stressed the benefits of driving -- independence, freedom of movement, social activity -- and argued that a graduated program might help more people drive safely longer.

It urged the legislature to heed a plea from doctors for more freedom to decide whether to report patients with conditions that could make it dangerous to drive. The inquest heard testimony that doctors tend to ignore the existing law because it is so broad they would have to report patients with broken legs as well as those with Alzheimer's.

The jury also urged the government to seek new methods of screening drivers and to try to find out how many people are driving who should not be. Evidence showed approximately 30 per cent of individuals 80-plus suffer significant dementia, it said.

The jury also recommended:
A review of the need for road tests, a yearly ritual for drivers aged 80 and over until 1996;
A review of the content of indoor education sessions such drivers now must take every two years;
A standard police form for reporting drivers with suspected medical impairment;
Information for doctors.