Safe driving and the elderly

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Portrait Of Smiling Senior Man Driving Car

Safe driving and the elderly

It’s the age old (pardon the pun) question: Are elderly drivers safe? Well we suppose it depends what you mean by old. And it depends what you mean by safe.

Do the driving skills of older drivers decline with age? Yes. Requiring the complex coordination of several skills to be deemed safe on the roads, the physical and mental changes that accompany aging – such as a slowdown in reflexes and response time, a loss of vision, hearing and memory, a weakening of muscle strength, drowsiness and less ability to focus – can all have a concerning effect on their ability to drive safely.

But as with other age brackets, skills vary from one person to another. Most people agree, therefore, that simply revoking an elderly person’s driver’s license over a certain age is simply unacceptable. That is why, therefore, the current practice is for the over 70s to declare themselves fit to drive every three years and renew their license – without the need for a driving test or medical exam.

According to most recent figures, the UK’s oldest licensed driver is a 108-year old woman and there are 236 people over the age of 100 with a license – part of the 4.5 million full-license holders over 70. Yet because the Department for Transport (DfT) says there is no evidence that older drivers are more likely to cause an accident, it has no plans to place any restrictions on the basis of age.

Philip Gomm of the RAC Foundation is quoted in the Guardian as saying that “older drivers often get a bad rap, as they actually tend to be some of the safest people on the road. They often self-regulate and avoid situations where they feel uncomfortable, such as driving during the rush hour, at night or on motorways.”

However, head of research at the RAC Foundation, Liz Box, is reported as claiming that there is some evidence to suggest that drivers over 80 are at an increased risk of accidents, as well as being more frail so more likely to be injured if an accident were to occur.

“There are huge benefits to people driving, it helps them feel empowered”, she says. “. What we want people to do is see their optician regularly, and go to independent assessment centres if they are concerned.”

Director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, Neil Greig, is quoted in the BBC as saying that “there’s a stat that young drivers under the age of 24 have twice as many crashes as you’d expect, given the numbers on the road, and older drivers have half as many as you’d expect.”

Despite this, he does acknowledge that there are some situations – for example high-speed junctions, roundabouts and motorways – where “some” may “struggle”.

“There’s some evidence that suddenly stopping driving and a lack of mobility leads to depression, so we want to keep people independent for as long as possible.”, he says. “The key thing is for people to start preparing for it early so they have other options.”

Age is just a number

Somewhat tellingly, however, insurance provider Rias conducted a survey recently which found that despite seven out of 10 people believing a person should be allowed to continue driving into old age without any sort of refresher course or test, over two million drivers over 50 did not feel that they are fit to be behind the wheel. Yet according to Confused.com, almost half of Brits half called for the law to change so that elderly drivers are forced to retake their test every three years. Somewhat interestingly, however, more than a fifth believe that all motorists should have to do this every 10 years – despite their age. It may also be no surprise that older drivers express concerns about their younger counterparts, too, with more than half over 70 believing that younger drivers are more reckless and cause more accidents on the road. And with the issue of mobile phones and distracted driving continually on the rise, they may have a point.

A report commissioned by Ford as part of the Ford Driving Skills for Life programme revealed that university students are the worst when it comes to road safety, with 43% admitting to sending texts while driving, 60% speeding and 13% drink driving.

Josh Sadler, racing driver, founder of independent Porsche specialist, Autofarm, and aged 73, is definitely one of those who believes that age is just a number.


“You keep doing things as long as you can!”, he tells us. “I still get the same excitement, the same thrill from racing as I did when I was younger. At 73 your whole body shakes with the adrenaline and anticipation as it did when you were 23. That feeling definitely makes you feel alive – perhaps it also keeps you alive!


“I know racers on the vintage scene that are still going at the age of 90. With years of experience, you know how the whole motor racing scene works, how an event works – it’s like a comfortable pair of slippers. You have a greater perspective of what’s important and what you can let go over your head. You are less likely to be the last of the late brakers – you don’t take unnecessary risks – but you are more likely to finish. The knowledge and experience means better reliability. You tend to come second rather than first!


“Generally, energy levels make competing more of a challenge, especially if you’re preparing and working on the car in between sessions as well as racing it. I’m not sure when it will be time to stop, energy levels could be a factor. However, being a pensioner, it’s more likely to be running out of money that forces me to stop racing!”

“Up for debate”

Confused.com motoring expert, Matt Lloyd, says: “For years, people have argued over whether younger or older motorists are the worst drivers. While this is still up for debate, we need to understand that we should be more concerned about the individual’s driving abilities. Drivers, regardless of age, should be mindful of their own ability and make sure responsible driving is their number one priority.

“Your safety and the safety of other road users are the most important things to consider. If you’re concerned that your driving is not as good as it was, don’t wait for an accident to convince you to stop.”

Managing Director at Rias, Adam Clarke, commented: “Since launching the Rias Drive Fit campaign in 2014 our aim has been to encourage safer driving whilst also supporting independence. While it may be a tough decision to give up driving, honest self-assessment is vital in ensuring the safety of both older drivers and other road users.

“The idea of a mandatory re-test is a controversial subject but one which the Government should consider, but a refresher course would be a welcome addition to driver experience for motorists of all ages.”

The AA Charitable Trust has also worked to address this, developing the Drive Confident course to help older drivers stay safe on the road and has currently funded more than 3,000 courses, whilst more than 25 experts and organisations in transport, health, policing, licensing, car manufacturing and insurance – known collectively as the Older Drivers Task Force – have collaborated to produce a report called Supporting Safe Driving Into Old Age which outlines seven key recommendations for the government to address, including mandatory vision every two years from the age of 60 and improving road designs, signs and markings.

“People are living longer, healthier, more active lives, and driving longer”, says Chairman of the Older Drivers Task Force, John Plowman. “The number of drivers over 85 will double to 1 million by 2025, many without access to public transport. This influx of older drivers has important economic and social value but it also presents road safety risks if we don’t adapt. Getting to grips with these risks, without limiting the independence and freedoms of the elderly is an important policy challenge – one to be tackled by the appointment of a minister with responsibility for older drivers.”

Drive responsibly

Bottom line, and whichever side of the debate you fall on, as an older driver, there are steps you can and should take to ensure your responsibility on the road is not diminished:

  • Stay on top of your health. Visit the doctor and optician regularly to keep a check of your overall health, sight and hearing, and ensure you get plenty of sleep. Someone like an occupational therapist can provide a comprehensive evaluation of whether or not it is still safe for you to be on the road. As an example, it is illegal to drive if you can’t read a number plate from 20.5m, so if you find that you cannot do this you must always wear either glasses or contact lenses every time you’re at the wheel.
  • Get the right car and any relevant aids. Power steering and brakes is really non-negotiable.
  • Don’t get distracted. In this day and age, it’s harder than ever to stay focused on the road, what with GPS, music and phones. If you feel like you could do with a bit of external help on this front, invest in our DriveID. You won’t be sorry!
  • Know your limitations. Despite all of this, you still may no longer feel confident on the road – and that’s ok! Speak to your loved ones openly and honestly – it may just be a case of taking a refresher course, or you may, in fact, feel like it’s time to stop driving completely.

Take responsibility

As a caregiver, you should also regularly evaluate the driving skills – and medical history – of your elderly loved ones to see if they are still safe on the road – and often they will be. But when the warning signs are there and you feel that there is no other option other than hanging up their car keys, just how should you go about it?

  • Include them in the decision. They may get defensive – even angry – when the subject of their driving abilities is raised. Remember – you are, in essence, taking away one the biggest symbols of their freedom and independence. Try to include them, therefore, in the discussions and subsequent decision-making processes as much as possible. Discuss the issue together with other family members, doctors and other people they may respect.
  • Be flexible. It doesn’t, necessarily, have to be an all or nothing decision; if still considered a safe driver but perhaps less confident, tell them to avoid driving in the dark, drive only locally and to familiar places, leave plenty of time to get to where they are going and always have someone in the car with them.
  • Be respectful. Without compromising on the importance of the matter.
  • Offer alternatives. There are still ways for them to get around independently – even without the use of a car. And with public transport being free for the over-65, they shouldn’t need more incentive than that! Other options are community shuttles, walking or cycling – all healthier alternatives, too!
  • This should be the final-straw, but if they are not going to stop without a fight, stage an intervention in which a group of people confront the driver as concerned caregivers. It must be handled firmly but with compassion. You can also report an unsafe driver to the DVLA, and according to Confused.com, more than two-thirds of Brits would alert the authorities if they thought an elderly driver was a danger on the roads. Absolute worst case scenario if this still doesn’t work is taking the keys from them or disabling all access to the car.

Remember, the safety of the driver and others must always come first.

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