Rarely a week seems to go by when the call goes up for older drivers to be made to take regular eye tests, retake their test or be taken off the roads completely. Reasonable… or ageist? asks Tony Watts OBE.
I have honestly lost count of the times that the “perils of older drivers” make headlines. Usually it’s been after an accident when someone has tragically lost their life or been injured because an older driver has lost control of their vehicle, and the family is (entirely understandably) outraged at what has happened.
But does that mean that older drivers as a group represent a particular hazard on the roads?
It’s an important issue. As the population ages, so does the number of older people behind the wheel. A record one in 25 driving licence holders in Britain is now aged 80 or above. That’s some 1.6 million people – up from 1.4 million two years ago.
In the UK (unlike many other countries) once you’ve passed your test, drivers do not have to undergo any mandatory tests, health or eye checks – no matter how old they are, although they are required to inform the DVLA if they are no longer fit to drive. But is that enough?
Driving licences must be renewed every three years once the holder reaches 70, compared with every 10 years up to that point, and the RAC Foundation is now urging the Government to introduce compulsory eye tests for all drivers during licence renewals.
The general public seem to go further: a recent YouGov survey shows that two thirds of us would support drivers aged 70 or above having to retake a practical test every three years to keep their licence.
Meanwhile, RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding says he does not support people being made to take another full driving test when they reach a certain age, but there is a “strong case” for introducing a fitness-to-drive assessment for older motorists which focuses on “the visual, mental and physical skills needed to carry on driving safely”.
In addition, “We do back compulsory eye tests for all drivers when they renew their photocard licences.”
So are the calls for more stringent measures for older people justified?
That’s when it becomes more interesting.
Drivers aged 70 or over represent 10% of crashes where the driver’s age is known. But, drivers aged 70 or above make up 14% of all licence holders. So technically safer…
And if you start to factor in miles driven, the stats are even more persuasive. Between the ages 17 and 75, the rate of car or van drivers involved in collisions per billion vehicle miles travelled falls as the driver age. It starts at 1,384 for drivers aged 17 to 24 and drops to just 211 for drivers aged 71 to 75. If anyone should be subject to more rigorous testing, it looks like it should be younger drivers.
But there is a caveat: the rate of accidents per mile driven then increases between ages 76 to 85, before rising sharply to the highest rate for any group (2,014) for drivers 86 and over.
The reasons that the accidents occur also shift with age, with younger drivers being more likely to be driving too quickly for the conditions, using their phone or being under the influence of alcohol than their older counterparts. One disproportionate factor involved in elderly car accidents is the driver failing to look properly or misjudging another driver’s path or speed.
Being an older driver doesn’t necessarily make us a more dangerous one. But some drivers who shouldn’t be on the road, plainly are.
So where does that leave us?
Mr Gooding said older drivers do tend to “know their limitations”, and also avoid driving at night or during the busiest times of day. But, he goes on to say, there will come a time when families will need to play their part by having that “difficult discussion” with an elderly loved one who might need to hang up their keys and lose their all-important independence. Not so easy when our public transport services are being hacked away.
Can we, then, arrive at a solution that is both sensible and non-ageist?
In the year ending June 2022, there were an estimated 1,760 fatalities in reported road collisions, while 29,804 were reported killed and seriously injured casualties, and 137,013 reported casualties of all severities: way down on the stats from the past and actually much better than most other countries.
But every accident matters. If we are serious about making our roads safer (for all users) surely we should be having regular mandatory driving tests for people of all ages, but tilted towards when we are most prone to having accidents: perhaps every five years for younger AND older drivers, and every 10 years for those in between.
After all, it’s easy for all of us to pick up bad driving habits as we get more confident on the road.
Meanwhile, older people invariably have eye tests undertaken professionally anyway, and these could form part of any fitness-to-drive certification.
The regular health checks for older people is a tricky one, with a NHS already under pressure. But here’s a thought. At the moment, drivers start to pay increasingly high premiums as they get older – reflecting the additional chances of having an accident. Paying for a health check to demonstrate that they are fit to drive should theoretically help them negotiate lower premiums.
Neither would families have to have difficult conversations with their ageing relatives as the decision would be made for them…
Your views? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org