Are older drivers a problem?

By October 26, 2012Media, Road Safety, Society

Car crashes provide great visual material for television news, and any regular news watcher can predict the story: the wrecked vehicle, the reporter summarising what happened, the policeman giving his warning, friends and relatives expressing grief. Speed and drink are the demons, youth, recklessness, tragedy…

Now there is a new villain – the older driver. He or she has hit the accelerator instead of the brake, or turned the wrong way, or failed to see the other car, or the pram or the person. The reporter goes to vox populi for a comment: ‘They shouldn’t be on the road!’ As an older driver myself I may be over-sensitive, but there seem to be more stories like this.

And I was in part responsible for one of them. The NRMA/ACT Road Safety Trust had supported a long-running study of the perceptions of older drivers, which had come to a successful end. In the media statement we released I added a line or two that revealed that, as a driver who had turned 75, I had personal experience of the need for older drivers to have check-ups before their licence is renewed.

The older drivers in the study had found their own strategies for dealing with the decline of our powers that come with advancing age. Our reflexes aren’t as quick, our agility not what it once was, our eyesight not quite as good. Bit by bit, we adjust. Some avoid driving in the rain, or at night, or on freeways. They use the car less and less, and finally, in many cases, they stop driving, usually after a bad scare. That was what happened to my father.

Our media release caused a lot of interest, and I fund myself giving radio interviews and background briefings. Then The Canberra Times sent a reporter and a photographer, and I spent half an hour discussing older drivers and being photographed in my own car, the lights on, with what looked like a grim expression on my face.

The newspaper story caused more interest, with letters to the editor, and to me, from older drivers, and a good deal of merriment among my friends about the details. Its headline, ‘Driving days coming to a slow stop’, seemed to point to me. And while I had suggested to the reporter that one strategy for living without the car was to move home, it appeared in the story as though I might be doing this tomorrow, which was news to my neighbours, not to mention my wife.

I have no complaints about the story, which was accurate and concise. Its reception showed me that older drivers are aware of their condition, and prepared to do something about it. The basic crash statistics are clear: the most dangerous group on the roads are young drivers, but by our mid eighties we older drivers have much the same tendency to be involved in crashes.

It is the causes that are different. Drink, drugs and speed are not the vices of the old. Their problems are perceptual weaknesses, slow reflexes and bad decisions. But they are aware of them, and do something to reduce their effect by changing the timing, pattern and range of their driving. Is that enough?

Probably not. At the moment it is the doctor who has to decide on whether or not an older driver is fit to drive, and your doctor subjects you to a medical examination, especially of your eyesight. This responsibility is an awkward one for any doctor who has known his patient for any length of time. My own doctor has been looking after me for more than thirty years. While I am sure he would find the right way to tell me that my driving days should be ending, to do so would be difficult, especially if I wanted to keep on driving, and had clear reasons for that felt need.

Sooner or later, I think, we will need to develop a road test for older drivers, one that is independent of doctors, though they might direct their patients to the test. Our driving conditions are becoming more complex, with more and more vehicles on the road, more cyclists, more pedestrians – more chaos. A road test would certainly be better than some kind of mandatory loss of licence at a designated age.

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