FREDERICTON -- A researcher at the University of New Brunswick says the number of seniors getting into the commercial driving industry is rising - and he's warning policy makers to be ready for the implications.

Eric Hildebrand says seniors currently represent about 14 per cent of New Brunswick's general driving population and within the next couple of decades that's going to increase to a full one-quarter.

"That's going to be a huge shift and it's something that's going to need to be accommodated from a policy perspective, from an engineering perspective, from a vehicle design perspective and so on," Hildebrand said.

"It's something that we need to understand because it's coming and it's coming quite quickly."

Hildebrand is gathering collision data from the last four years to examine the performance of older drivers in school buses, transport trucks, and motorcoaches.

"There has been a shortage of drivers, particularly tractor-trailer drivers, and with pensions in the kind of shape they're in and so on, we are starting to see more seniors either get into these fields or stay in them longer," Hildebrand said.

"Nobody really understands what's required and what thresholds we need to evaluate people in terms of whether they are a safe driver or not."

Hildebrand said he has done some preliminary analysis on seniors driving tractor trailers, and found that drivers over the age of 70 were involved in accidents at a rate of 6.3 times more than middle-aged drivers.

He said that's a "huge number" that should be of concern for government and trucking companies.

But Leonard LeBlanc, president of the New Brunswick Senior's Federation said he's not worried about seniors driving commercial vehicles.

"They have to have a medical every year or so and if they don't pass a physical they don't get their licence. It's as simple as that," LeBlanc said.

A February 2010 decision by the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board did away with the mandatory retirement age of 65 for school bus drivers in the province, resulting in a wave of seniors taking up the job.

Brien Watson, president of CUPE Local 1253 -- representing school bus drivers in New Brunswick - said the annual testing protocol for drivers over the age of 60 is quite stringent.

"You have to have a medical from your doctor, your eye exam, a written test, inspection of your bus and road test," he said.

Right now, the oldest school bus driver in the province is 73.

"The public doesn't have to worry about drivers over 60 years old. They are out there now and they're doing a good job," Watson said.

Amanda Dean, vice-president Atlantic with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, said someone's medical condition and driving history are bigger factors than age for the insurance industry.

"A driver of any age, if you're starting to have more collisions or more and more infractions, maybe it's time to have the discussion about testing or to see if there's a temporary impairment such as medication for a certain condition," she said.

Dean said that in many cases, older drivers can have lower collision rates than anyone else. However, she does point out that according to Transport Canada, drivers 65 and over represent 17 per cent of fatalities even though they only represent 14 per cent of drivers.

Hildebrand said most senior drivers can self-regulate by avoiding busy roads, and not driving in bad weather or at night. But he said seniors who need to drive commercial vehicles can't make the same choices.

"You can imagine a school bus with all the kids screaming and yelling behind you and you are having to stop and start in traffic with dropping kids off and picking them up and so on. The general workload is higher," he said.

He said it is very hard to ask someone to give up their driver's licence because it is their independence.

"In Australia they've done a very good job of educating people that a drivers licence has an expiration date and at some point you're going to have it taken away. In North America we're no where near that at this point," Hildebrand said.