The 17th of January saw the 97 year-old Prince Philip crash his Land Rover into a Kia containing three passengers, including a 9 month-old baby. Mercifully, all involved survived, although one woman suffered a broken arm. The event has sparked public debate concerning the reliability of elderly drivers, and not for the first time.
In 2012, Desreen Brooks-Dutton was killed by an 80 year-old driver who mistook the accelerator for the brake. Three years later, her husband, Benjamin Brooks-Dutton, began campaigning for elderly drivers to be retested every three years, in order to prevent tragedies such as this. His petition received over 140,000 signatures, but his attempts to change legislation have not yet been successful. Currently, drivers over 70 must complete a self-assessment form every three years in order to continue to drive; however, this does not include either a medical or a driving test and with more than 4.3 million drivers over 70, there is significant resistance to changing the system. The Department of Transport has previously stated that they have no plans to restrict licensing on the basis of age, and that there is no evidence to suggest that older drivers are more likely to cause an accident.
On the contrary, data shows that drivers under 20 have more fatal accidents than those over 70, often due to reckless driving. There has been some suggestion that we ought to legislate more scrupulously the conditions which affect an individual’s ability to drive, rather than enforcing potentially ageist legislation. For example, although those with heart rhythm issues must inform the DVLA, those with a history of heart attacks and strokes do not, increasing the risk of road accidents. A shift in policy regarding these conditions would take potentially dangerous drivers off the road, including those who develop medical concerns with age, such as significant sight loss or hearing difficulties.
However, some doctors feel that this may be a violation of the trust between medics and the public: if people were afraid to report symptoms for fear that they may be prevented from driving, treatable conditions may worsen. Additionally, under new guidelines doctors are encouraged to report elderly patients to the DVLA if they believe them to be a danger on the roads. For many, driving is not just a luxury but a necessity. For the elderly in particular, it facilitates independence, as well as encouraging an active social life and community engagement. The RAC Foundation estimates that there are 37 million people in the UK who are entirely dependent upon their cars, meaning that without them the quality of life of these people would be drastically reduced.
However, the question is not about removing an individual’s independence, but ensuring that everybody on the road is fit to drive in the interests of safety. The purpose of retesting would not be to remove elderly people from the road, or even to insult their capabilities, but to minimise the threat posed by dangerous driving.
Worryingly, a recent survey by Rias Insurance found that 20% of motorists over the age of 50 believe that they would fail their driving test if they had to take it again. If dangerous drivers are aware that they pose a threat then we need to create an environment in which it is simple and painless to remove them from the road. An obvious solution is improved public transport. Although councils might struggle financially to achieve this, regular and frequent bus, tram and train services would not only be beneficial for traffic control and carbon emissions, but would also encourage more motorists to travel via alternative modes of transport, particularly those already being encouraged by family, friends and perhaps even medical staff, to give up driving.
Research by Nottingham Trent University found that our ability to process visual images slows dramatically with age, with over-65s taking triple the time to process multiple objects as young people. Information such as this is sensitive and difficult to hear, yet – with no safeguards taken besides the self-assessment – it typically falls to family and friends to tell a loved one when they become a danger. Such uncomfortable conversations unsurprisingly strain relationships, a difficulty that could be avoided if the assessment of safe driving was an issue of policy, rather than a personal consideration. Considering this, perhaps the government should consider enforcing retesting in order to normalise the process of surrendering a license, making it less personal.
A further argument for intervention through policy can be found in Direct Line car insurance’s research, which reveals that more than a million elderly motorists are failing to disclose medical conditions. In comparison, there is a huge discrepancy with the number of licenses being voluntarily surrendered to DVLA, at only 1,000 per year. If so many of our elderly population are choosing to continue driving with undisclosed medical conditions, it is reasonable to assume that lives are being put at risk. In this case, it could be argued that the only way to ensure drivers are fit to be on the road is by retesting.
Another important consideration is that we all age at a different rate. Whilst one individual may not be fit to drive at 65, another might still be a safe pair of hands well into triple figures, evident by the 200 or more drivers in Britain having celebrated their 100th birthday.
However, although incidences of elderly drivers causing accidents are upsetting, statistics show that older drivers are no more likely to cause accidents than younger drivers. The risk of an over 70 killing a pedestrian is significantly smaller than that of a middle-aged driver, whilst those over 70 are also only half as likely to be involved in car accidents as 18-20 year-olds, according to the Association of British Insurers. Considering this, singling out an age bracket for retesting which is not statistically dangerous could only be seen to be discriminatory.
The debate regarding elderly drivers will always be a sensitive one, edging into conversations about the independence afforded to those who have contributed to our society for decades, but the question of general safety makes the dialogue necessary. Whilst there are people on polar sides of the argument – vehemently believing either in the necessity of regular retesting or in an individual’s right to decide when to stop driving – there is also plenty of middle ground worth considering. Perhaps the solutions lie in the ‘nudge’ technique, making public transport a simple, affordable and rewarding experience, or in legislation based on medical conditions of concern, rather than age directly. Whatever action is (or is not) taken, it seems this conversation will continue to be current for the foreseeable future, with valid and emotive arguments on both sides.
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