Do older drivers pose more risk?

do older drivers pose a greater risk than others

Are you getting too old to drive? Do you have doubts about getting behind the wheel? Or is someone close to you expressing such doubts?

These are difficult questions to confront, and perhaps even more difficult to answer. But as the risk of potential health issues rises as we age, it’s a question older drivers must face at some point.

Taking a wide-scale view of older drivers can be a fraught process for policy makers. A broad brush approach to dealing with potential safety issues risks punishing older drivers whose skills exceed a 30-year-old’s.

On the other hand, age-related health conditions are a fact of life. They may affect an older driver’s abilities or, in some cases, the medication to treat the condition may cause problems.

Older drivers – perception versus reality

One of the confounding issues in ensuring safety on our roads can be skewed media coverage. A tragic accident involving an elderly driver is sometimes considered by news producers to be a good story opportunity.

As cold-hearted as that might sound, it’s a reality that news that generates debate will drive more readers, viewers or clicks. Such a story will therefore be given more prominence.

If the same tragic accident had involved a 40-year-old driver, would it generate the same level of debate about the safety of drivers in their 40s? Unlikely.

And yet, the statistics tell us it probably should. A report on Australian car accidents shows that, in 2022, 40 to 64-year-olds accounted for the most road deaths, followed by 17 to 25-year-olds.

A national approach

Putting potentially skewed perception aside, age-related health issues can potentially affect the abilities of older drivers. As such, policies to reduce the risks are a good idea. In Australia, road safety is governed by the states and territories, so the rules vary.

In NSW, Queensland and the ACT, a GP must complete a medical assessment of drivers aged 75 and over to determine their driving abilities. In WA this requirement applies from the age of 80.

But there is no such mandate in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia or the Northern Territory.

The problem with GP assessments, though, is they use what University of Queensland (UQ) emeritus professor Geoff Mitchell calls “blunt instruments”. Things such as basic memory tests when signing off on older drivers’ fitness to take the wheel, says Prof. Mitchell.

Prof. Mitchell, also an Ipswich-based GP, said: “There is a real dilemma of determining when that line has been crossed. [A memory test is] good at picking out really severely unwell people, but it’s not very good at testing judgement.”

Can technology help?

Technology may be able to play a part. UQ, for example, has developed the Navigating Fitness to Drive program. This program uses dashcam videos of real-life situations to assess the reaction times of people with dementia.

Recorded reaction times can then help GPs make a recommendation on an older driver’s licence to stay on the road.

Prof. Mitchell acknowledged that the test would not make the process of taking away an older driver’s ability to stay on the road any easier. “It is very, very difficult and I have personal experience with this with my father,” he said.

For now, determining whether older drivers remain behind the wheel remains one that probably should involve the driver and those close to them. Such involvement could help save not just the older driver, but others, from injury or worse.

Are you an older driver? Do you have any concerns about maintaining your driving skills?  Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Are driving skills (good and bad) hereditary?

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

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  1. Most of the bad accidents lately have been caused by young drivers. At 75 I rate myself better than 95% of drivers. It would be a revenue earner and an employment opportunity if drivers were tested at least every two years, young and old.

  2. As an 83 year old driver, I am very conscious of the problems that my age could present, such as slower reaction times and lessening field of vision. So when driving I make greater effort to maintain concentration than when I was younger and keep watch further ahead for potential hazards. It’s called defensive driving and should be practised by all road users. When I feel my ability is diminishing, I will hand in my license. To be the cause of someone’s injury or death would be something I couldn’t live with.

    • Exactly ..I would also stop driving as soon as I felt I was unsafe.. a very large proportion of olders drivers do the same.
      I spent about 5 years as a driving instructor and found older drivers were much more careful and lacked the aggression and inexperience of the younger drivers going for their first licence. I can never understand why the medical industry has been given the power to act alone in removing a drivers licence. The Optical industry has a clear conflict of interest in having that power.
      Why cant a practical driving test be the way to test an aging driving … I could pick a driver who had serious issues after only a few blocks of driving. I met some young people who should never drive a car.. they had very serious problems with judgement of speed and distance and could not improve with practice. I like the UQ idea of a test module on a PC , but when its all boiled down that is a poor substitute for real driving. If done by a properly qualified, experienced and licenced driving instructor in a duel control car it would be much more accurate way to test older drivers. The medical /optical people will no doubt resists this idea with a vengeance.. they would lose a fortune. Also, the Qld authorities are extremely ageist in their thinking and won’t even entertain the idea. The family members should also be involved as they know a lot about their elders driving capacity … they should be asked for their views every time a licence is threatened by the public servants in power … especially in Qld.
      I give full credits to the authorities in SA. they haven’t had a rush of crashes since adopting more enlightened rules for older drivers.
      Everyone involved should keep in mind that removing a drivers licence is a very serious thing for an older driver and it has a really terrible negative effect on the life of any such driver. There is no effective substitute for the mobility I have with my own car.
      Let’s have practical driving tests as the main way to test older drivers.

  3. Arh, this old chestnut again. Statistics, their a marvelous thing, taken out of context or using spin it’s very easy to show the two and two don’t equal four. It’s my belief that overall older drivers are far safer than younger drivers. There’s always the exception to the rule, however once reaching 75 years and over the older, driver spent less time on the road, takes shorter trips and generally dives between the hours of say ten and five. Definitely not so much at night. And as well pointed out, more physically susceptible to accidents, not caused by themselves, thus the higher fatality rate. I feel the Government should be taking a lot more notice of youth crime, stealing cars joyriding, smashing into other cars, killing pedestrians, driving into people’s houses, etc., not to mention the disgusting drug addled drivers for whom capital punishment should be reinstated. And finally, I believe the older drivers take a lot more care on the roads, as they are aware that they are not as sharp as they once were and are generally going a little slower, annoying at times but so are 40 kilometer areas around schools. So let’s not get the knives out right away, have some respect for others and leave the decision-making up to the Medical Practitioners. Jacka.

  4. I believe there are drivers of all ages that shouldn’t be on the road. But in saying that as you age you have to be aware that your response times aren’t as good, and if you travel at 20km below the regulated speed limit than I’m sorry, your licence needs to be handed over. It is up to each individual to gauge when the time is right to give up driving. Being a younger senior, and living near a retirement village, I see this every day with ölder drivers”being so cautious on the road that an accident could very well happen.

  5. Another problem with some auto car drivers is “Left and right foot” use when driving. Using the left foot for braking and right foot for acceleration. I know several older (70s) people who drive this way. The problem is if one has to stop in an emergency the right foot takes over to hit the brake but instead the accelerator is pushed. We all know what happens next. “Store front crash.”

  6. Seniors are over-represented in road death statistics. But that is a failure to understand the statistics. You must delve into the numbers to understand why we are over-represented, it’s not driving skills.
    The majority of senior road deaths are passengers. That’s because we are more fragile.

  7. As I turn 75 next year and am in Queensland I will have to be medically assessed next year to keep driving. I have no serious health problems and expect to fly through it. My GP is 77 himself so should be sympathetic.
    Personally I don’t think age should be much of a factor in deciding who can drive a car, as there are good and bad drivers of all ages.

  8. NSW allows one to confidentially advise the authority that you consider someone is unsafe to drive..

    Age should not be the criteria. There are plenty of unsafe drivers of any age on the road. Mental capacity does play a large part in reacting to situations. A driver of a modern car with all of its safety features is far safer that someone driving a car from yesteryear.


    • Assessing older people’s ability to drive in NSW is also physically checked every two years once you reach the age of 85. After this age you have to have a supervised driving test, by an authorized NSW Service driving instructor. This is in addition to annual medical and optical checks required after reaching the age of 75. I don’t think that you can be more supervised, but of course as you age you are more prone to medical emergencies. However, if you have been checked properly by your doctor and optician, they should be able to be aware of the likelihood.
      Maybe it would be a good idea to have all people checked every 5 years. It’s easy to to be able to remember the “Rules of the Road”.
      I notice that many people take risks in speeding, ignore the need to indicate left or right most of the time and are totally ignorant of the rules on using roundabouts. Many drivers still believing your have right of way coming form the right, even if you are 10 metres away from the entry. Plus drivers drive straight through stop signs especially on turning left.
      One other constant irregularity, is that when stopping behind another vehicle, you are supposed to be able to see the tyres on the vehicle in front on the road surface. You can’t if the driver in front can’t even see your radiator.

  9. What I believe is that many people are not aware of the road rules as well. As a 76 year old, I know that I have slowed down a little – if there is no one behind me, otherwise I will drive to the speed limit. It is the person who is driving way below the speed limit which is a potential cause of accidents. by way below, I mean 20-30 kms below. I also believe we should all have to undertake, at a minimum, an electronic test of the road rules.

  10. A US man is still driving his car at the age of 107 and a Kiwi at the age of 105. So, hopefully, I can enjoy driving my classic MG sportscar for many years to come. I am 82 and have driven the length and breadth of four continents, meeting many competent 70 + drivers along the way. It’s not about age. It’s about fitness, and the skills we have accumulated over a lifetime.

  11. As an 84 year old driver holding a maximum no claim bonus for insurance purposes,and I drive well in excess of 10,000 ks a year. I wish there was a test for impatient drivers.
    you see them everyday weaving in and out of traffic lanes and where lanes converge from two to one lane tearing down the inside lane to gain some sort of advantage over drivers who are travelling safely in the right hand lane ,its a fair bet they are complaining about “slow” drivers. Surely a drivers record should be considered in any assesment.

  12. I am 73 years old and still drive Roadtrains, my reflexes are as good as what they were 30 years ago, the art, of good driving is to be aware of your surroundings, not looking strait ahead, always when behind a vehicle if you cannot see the tyres on the road you are too close and always look at least a hundred meters up the road if possible.

  13. So we are comparing an age group that spans 24/25 years compared to an age group that spans 9 years. It does not take Einstein to work out which group is going to have more deaths. Maybe they should work on a per year as in 367 deaths for the 40 to 64 years equals 14.68 deaths per age year. For 17 to 25 age group – 223 deaths equal to 24.78 per age year.

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