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Do older drivers get a fair press?

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

Mention the term ‘Older Driver’ to any younger person and they normally associate that with someone, at best, who drives around unnecessarily slowly and, at worst, someone who drives onto pavements or the wrong way down a motorway.

But is this a fair impression? Well, actually, not in my experience. I have been heavily involved in checking or writing well over 5000 ‘older drivers’ assessment reports in the past few years and have tried to keep updated with the many research reports published over that time. They all say that older drivers, as a group, are among the safest drivers on the road.

So where is the ‘problem?

The time when older drivers come to peoples' attention is from a major collision, highlighted on the national news, such as an 80 year old driving onto a pavement and killing innocent pedestrians. What usually follows afterwards is a major call for older drivers to be taken off the roads, lumping all over a certain age into the same category of risk.

Yes, these catastrophic collisions do happen occasionally but thankfully they are extremely rare. Indeed, they are far less likely than a younger driver crashing a car into a tree by driving too fast round a bend, with a car full of friends. You see, one thing older drivers tend not to do is drive at excessive speed.

Even the term ‘older driver’ is not always well defined. You could definitely call a 90 year old an older driver and almost certainly the same for an 80 year old. But what about someone who is 70 or 60. We are all older drivers then we were when we passed our test, and many of us are far more risky on the roads then most 80 year olds!

Statistically, older drivers up to 75, are one of the safest groups on the roads. By the time they reach 80 years old, however, they are more likely to be the cause of an accident but at the same time, are significantly more likely to be injured in any given accident due to frailty. For this reason, I tend to think of those over 75 as ‘older drivers’ if we need to actually define what we mean.

Just as there are variations in the skills of all drivers, there are a few older drivers who really should have handed their licences in but the vast majority are sensible, careful drivers with a great attitude to road safety. Although the ageing affect will have an impact on safe driving, most compensate for this by restricting themselves to roads they feel safe on.

Some road safety organisations and local authorities offer driver assessments for older motorists to check their competence, and this should, you would have thought, go some way to identify those most at risk of collision. However, that does not appear to be the case. There is no real evidence to show that these assessments reduce the risk of collision, particularly those headline grabbing ones.

There are several reasons for this:

1. Any voluntary scheme, which aims to help drivers, tends to attract those that already have an interest in their own safety and simply want to test themselves out. The drivers who are most likely to cause a fatal collision usually don’t put themselves forward.

2. A driving assessment is not usually a true reflection of their day-to-day driving. For a start, they will be on best behaviour trying to avoid being marked down for shoddy habits. They will likely be in full concentration mode and there may not be any real hazardous situations, to test them out on properly, during an assessment drive.

3. It is also unlikely that they will be able to change their driving habits of a lifetime, from advice on a single assessment drive, even if the assessor recommends that they should do this to lower the risk of a collision.

4. The less experienced driving assessors don’t always use a suitable method to convince the driver of the need to change.

5. There are no studies, that I know of, which links a standard driving assessment program directly to a reduction in road casualties.

So, how do we go about ensuring that all the safe drivers in their later years aren’t victimised but still engage with those who have become less safe or even dangerous?

To answer this, we need to consider who are most likely to have these catastrophic collisions. My experience tells me that those who are no longer cognitively sharp are the ones who put themselves and others most at risk unless they have family or friends to help ensure they manage and restrict the roads they drive on.

So, let’s look more closely at the main headline grabbing collision types.

Driving the wrong way on a dual carriageway or motorway.

You can imagine that any driver will occasionally make a mistake or get confused for a moment. This is more likely if they are stressed, tired or distracted. However, most drivers will realise their mistake and rectify it. So, if they find themselves heading down a slip road, it shouldn’t take many seconds to realise they are on the wrong side and stop safely somewhere (if possible). What you wouldn’t expect is the driver to carry on driving at speed against the flow of traffic!

Hitting the accelerator instead of the brake in an automatic vehicle

This is actually a very common occurrence and the main reason why I would never recommend an automatic to a driver who is not cognitively sharp. In the majority of cases, no injury is caused as the driver very quickly realises the mistake. Even someone who is slow to react will still correct themselves quite quickly. What is much more unusual, but much more catastrophic, is when a driver doesn’t realise what is going wrong and just presses the accelerator harder. This will greatly increase the risk of pedestrian injury or fatality.

Turning right across flows of traffic

This collision type is very common for any age of driver but particularly for those that are older. There are various possible reasons for this, such as failing eyesight, particularly where there is a low sun causing problems, or at night with headlight glare. But these types of collision often happen in good light conditions, and many happen where there is a reasonably good view both ways, as well as to drivers who don’t tend to rush their observations.

The problem would seem to come from a crucial lack of further checks both ways as the manoeuvre is being carried out. For example, if a driver has a good look both ways whilst waiting to emerge onto a higher speed road, but there is a corner in the distance, that driver would need to keep a check whilst moving so that evasive action can be taken if the situation changes.

One thing that seems to change as age goes on is a decrease in those updated observations during the manoeuvre, as well as taking a little longer to clear the danger zone. This is a recipe for such a collision, as a vehicle doing 60 mph will have travelled approximately 150 metres in the time it takes to clear the junction. So, you really do need to keep looking. The stopping distance at that speed is around 73 metres.

Given that the Government seem very reluctant to change the rules to do with driving licencing for older drivers, how do we go about reducing the risk of these types of headline grabbing collisions?

If standard, voluntary driving assessments are not the answer then we have to look elsewhere for a solution. Some people would like to see all drivers tested at a certain age, such as 70, but this has been tried in other countries and doesn’t work well for a number of reasons. In any case, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon as the loss of independence, by failing a test, that a driving licence affords may cause far more welfare problems than it solves.

The secret, surely, is to increase our engagement with those drivers who are most likely to have these catastrophic collisions. If you accept that the collisions mentioned above are due to a slowness to recognise the danger and react to it, it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that one of the most likely causation factors is cognitive impairment.

For any older driver, the speed at which information is processed in the brain decreases as time goes on. Many older drivers compensate for this by altering their driving patterns, and so the ones we need to engage with are the ones who develop a medical condition which causes a greater degree of cognitive impairment, such as dementia, particularly where insight into the danger they are exposing themselves and other road users to, is lost.

Yet, the system for engagement with these drivers is woefully inadequate in this country and it is normally a family member, more than anyone else, who has to persuade the driver to stop driving. Many families who are concerned about older relatives don’t know how to deal with this nor where to turn for help, other than some guidance on a website somewhere.

What's more, any professional driving assessor who is willing to help, is discouraged from becoming involved with these types of driving assessment. There are two valid reasons for this:

1. False confidence. A standard driving instructor will have little knowledge about how cognitive impairment may affect driving in potential circumstances that may not be seen on an assessment drive, on a familiar route. This can result in false confidence and ammunition that the driver can use to show others they are ‘safe’.

2. There is a great resistance from Clinicians, and most road safety organisations, to standard driving assessors offering this type of assessment due to a lack of understanding of the medical condition.

There are specialist Driving Assessment Centres available where drivers with cognitive impairment can be assessed by a driving assessor, in tandem with an occupational therapist, but it is likely that no more than 10% of all drivers diagnosed with dementia, for example, end up at one of these centres.

Partly, this is due to funding, or available resources, and partly due to a considerable reluctance by drivers to be assessed there.

One of the reasons for a reluctance to use these centres is that they are not seen as a fair assessment by many drivers, their families, and even some medical professionals who are keen to keep a good doctor/patient relationship. Assessments at these centres would mean using an unfamiliar vehicle and driving on roads they may have never driven on before and have no intention of driving on.

This takes away one of the main safety barriers many older drivers use by self-regulating the driving they do and staying local, in order to maintain a level of independence.

In my next blog, I will develop this further by looking at the current situation and investigate ways that can improve this situation.

Graham Mylward


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