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