Beware of seniors driving scooters

A Vancouver Island safety rodeo tries to rein in an often Wild West way of getting around

Beware of seniors driving scootersHere in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, where the median age of residents is 60.9 (the oldest in Canada), you can’t stroll the main street without seeing a senior on a mobility scooter zipping into the pharmacy or zooming into a bank. For seniors who’ve failed a driving test or voluntarily relinquished a licence, the vehicle is a boon. There is no education class to take or test to pass. No insurance or licence is required. Speed limits don’t apply to mobility scooters, so you can’t get a speeding ticket.

And if you’re a little unsteady one day from prescription medications and the scooter weaves a bit through traffic, “there’s not going to be an impaired charge,” says Const. Stewart Masi of the Oceanside RCMP detachment in Parksville, B.C. Mobility scooters are classified as pedestrians, he explains. “It’s like if they were walking down the street impaired. They’re not breaking any laws.”

The Wild West feeling with these scooters has RCMP Cpl. Garry Cox fearing for people’s lives. “There are guidelines out there but none of it is law. There are all kinds of issues,” he told Maclean’s. “Some of these scooters are the size of a small car, and people are riding them on the sidewalk—there’s no room for the pedestrian.” That’s just the tip of the problem, he says: “There have been fatalities across Canada.” On Vancouver Island recently, 74-year-old James Wick died when his scooter tipped off the sidewalk and landed under the wheels of a dump truck.

“There are a lot of handling problems,” says Cox. If a big man buys a small scooter, “all of a sudden he finds he’s top-heavy and he keeps tipping over. Then we get the other side of the coin where the person buys too big of a scooter and they tip over the edge of the sidewalk, capsizing.” Equally dangerous are seniors driving scooters in traffic. “We’ve had a few crashes with vehicles where it resulted in major injuries. There’s lots of confusion. It’s not just the scooter drivers. Drivers don’t know what to do when they see one on the road.”

“Some of [the seniors] are very strong-headed people and you have to catch them several times,” Cox says. He recalls one elderly man who gave up his licence “on the premise he could drive this thing like a car.” Repeatedly, police urged the man and his scooter onto the sidewalk. “He wasn’t forgetting. He was just very set in his mind. He said, ‘This is what I was told.’ ”

“I’m seeing all of this going on,” Cox told Maclean’s, “and I said, ‘Something has to be done before somebody gets killed.’ ” Now, thanks to Cox, Qualicum Beach has an annual scooter rodeo where seniors meet in a parking lot to practise backing up and handling skills on a pylon course amidst blasting country music and the aroma of grilled meat on the barbecue. Const. Masi takes the microphone to address the crowd of about 50 seniors; 14 will ride the course. “You are to yield to vehicles and bicycles,” he booms. “You can’t pull into traffic. Use the crosswalks. Wear bright clothing. Remember! You are a pedestrian!”

Rodeo organizer Phyllis Edwards stands with a clipboard at the start line. First out of the gate is 79-year-old Dave Pedley in dark sunglasses, a black T-shirt and black leather vest. His purple scooter is decorated with a skull-and-crossbones sticker. “I’d like you to drive to that lady,” Edwards tells Pedley, “and then back up. And when you’re backing up, you want to watch out for me. If you run into me or any of my toes, I’m taking off points.” Pedley is told to slow down. Edwards docks points. “I’m tough on ’em,” she says.

Next up is 88-year-old Rowland Skirrow, who’s test-driving the scooter he’s on. He’s never driven one before. A “young fella” in Parksville just failed him on his road test, he says. “This guy wants to get seniors off the road. He failed me in everything. When he finished, I said, ‘Now I’m going to tell you I’ve been driving for 70 years. I’ve never got in an accident. I’ve never had a citation. Can you tell me your record?’ He wouldn’t do it!”

At the end of the rodeo, Edwards reports there were “no spills or accidents or tip-overs” this year. “A few knocked over the cones as they were on the course, but that’s part of the exercise to help them learn where their machine is in relation to the obstacles.”

Later at the chip bowl, Skirrow expresses satisfaction with his scooter. He thinks he’ll buy a similar model. “You can speed up as fast as you want. There’s a dial. When you get to the red then of course you’re going too fast.” Of the fast-moving Pedley, he confides, “He was showing off.”

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