TORONTO - Older drivers are dismayed by the negative publicity they sometimes get, and they're looking for proactive approaches, such as refresher courses in a non-threatening setting, to keep them sharp behind the wheel and driving longer.

These were among the comments heard in a fact-finding mission across Canada by Nicol Korner-Bitensky, principal investigator of the National Blueprint for Injury Prevention in Older Drivers.

"They felt that the model in Canada is now punitive," Korner-Bitensky, an occupational therapist in the faculty of medicine at McGill University, said from Montreal.

"And they're nervous and worried about their driving, and about people taking away their licences."

The blueprint is being formally released Thursday at a news conference in Ottawa, and is an initiative of McGill and the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists, financially supported by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Besides talking to older Canadians, the work involved a systematic review of research to determine what's effective in the way of driver retraining.

The leading cause of accidental death for people aged 65 to 75 in Canada is related to driving, statistics show, and a driver over 75 is 3.5 times more likely to be involved in a crash per mile (1.6 kilometres) driven than a 35-to 40-year-old driver.

Korner-Bitensky said the body of research has grown in the last five or six years, particularly in the area of response time, which slows as people age.

"The really good news is that as we age, we can retrain our response time to get faster again," she said.

"Older individuals, when they heard about that, were excited. They wanted to retrain their response time, and they felt that that made good sense for driving."

Older drivers can also be trained to improve their visual search ability, she said. This would help them to assess, for instance, whether it's a paper bag that's blowing into the street or a ball, which might be followed by a child trying to retrieve the ball.

Flexibility is also an issue.

"They stop being able to turn around and see behind them very well, and in our focus groups, they told us that they themselves were concerned that they were hitting posts and increasingly what they called sloppy driving," she said.

"And they would look forward to something that would help them become more flexible again."

Barbara Ann Pennie, 84, got her driver's licence when she was 19 and still takes the wheel of her Chevy Cavalier about three times a week - to go to church, to work with people with disabilities and to run other errands.

Just before doing an interview Wednesday, she had been giving a boost to a fellow resident at her retirement home with car trouble.

"So far I'm all right," she said of her driving abilities, adding that she's open to the idea of a refresher course.

"Every once in a while I see them, you know, like in the church bulletin or something, and I think 'gee, well, maybe I should take that.' Maybe I will take the next one," she said from Ottawa.

"The thing is, I don't think they do enough testing of old people to make sure they know how to drive ... because a lot of them are terrible drivers."

Korner-Bitensky said the researchers found that refresher courses are often run on a shoestring budget with a volunteer at the helm.

"They (seniors) want to go somewhere that's a health promotion place. They don't want to go to a rehab facility. They don't want to go to a hospital-type of illness place. They want to go somewhere that's non-threatening."

At a day-long meeting to be held Friday, funded by the health agency, Transport Canada, police and various stakeholders will look at the blueprint and begin to map a strategy.

Korner-Bitensky said the authors of the blueprint are hoping that insurance companies will buy in, and offer reduced rates for those who take refresher programs.

Technology like the GPS and special features in cars that include better lighting systems can help older drivers, along with road improvements, Korner-Bitensky said.

"For example, in Florida, some of the communities now only have left turns protected with a light, so that an older driver who's trying to make a decision to turn left but sees oncoming cars doesn't make that bad decision."

It's also a subject close to the heart of the Canadian Automobile Association, which recently put out a paper on senior drivers and highway design.

"We know that government has already committed in the federal budget to $12 billion in infrastructure spending," said Leanne Mailment, a CAA spokesperson in Ottawa.

"So let's look at a strategic and creative way to spend it that will really truly make our roads safer."

Improvements to intersections, signage and delineation of lanes are key components of the CAA position, and these would benefit seniors as well as other drivers, she said.

Korner-Bitensky said the message from seniors that comes through loud and clear is that driving is important to them.

"In our focus groups we've had - repeatedly - people tell us that having your licence removed is worse than having a cancer diagnosis."