Right to drive at risk?

It seems that there are more and more challenges to keeping your licence as you get older. Driving is and has been a major part of our lives, and losing the freedom to go where you want, when you want, can have a devastating effect on lifestyle.

However, it is undeniable that our driving skills are affected by the ageing process.

Senior drivers are increasingly coming under the microscope, with many pundits urging that older drivers’ freedom to drive be curtailed or removed altogether. So, what can you do to improve your odds of not having your licence compulsorily cancelled?

“That doesn’t apply to me!”

Admitting that there’s a problem is the first hurdle. In a recent survey in the UK, two thirds of the 1000 people questioned rated themselves as “among the best” or “better than most” drivers, while only a quarter see themselves as “average” (a paltry seven per cent admitted there was “room for improvement” in their driving). Anyone can see that’s a statistical absurdity. Quite simply, seventy per cent of us can’t be “better-than-average” drivers.

Even worse, the older we get, the more generous we are in assessing our own competence. And most of us don’t want to talk or think about when we are no longer able to drive.

Not only do our cognitive skills and reaction times decrease with age, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with the ever-changing road rules (and the increasing number of them). How well do you understand roundabout rules? Merging rules? Making turns at intersections? Sure, lack of road rule knowledge isn’t limited to the over-50s, but it can be and is a major problem.

Generally speaking, older drivers are safe and cautious on the roads (some would say, “too cautious”). Most responsible over-50s make appropriate adjustments to their driving and travel behaviour, but there is evidence that some older drivers simply don’t adopt self-regulatory driving behaviours. This puts them at higher risk of involvement in a crash.

All of us will benefit from targeted driver awareness, education and training programs. Monash University in Melbourne, in conjunction with the NRMA ACT Road Safety Trust, has developed a new education and training program aimed at senior drivers: Seniors Driving Longer, Smarter, Safer.

The program aims to provide groups of senior drivers with knowledge about crash and injury risk, raise their awareness of the effects of ageing on driving performance and crash risk, and provide tips and strategies on maintaining safe driving practices for as long as possible. The program also outlines strategies for the successful reduction and cessation of driving and alternative transport options once driving becomes impractical.

Are senior drivers really at more risk on the road?
We’ve all seen the headlines: ‘Elderly driver mistakes brake pedal for accelerator’ or, as appeared in a Sydney newspaper not so long ago: ‘Too many elderly drivers are on the road with a licence to kill’.

Such crashes and near-misses increasingly bring about calls for the introduction of medical and driving tests for senior drivers. There have even been calls for senior drivers to display an ‘S’ plate, similar to the ‘P’ plate that new drivers must display, to advise other motorists that they are in the vicinity of a senior driver.

Studies clearly show that the risk of being involved in a fatal crash increases as we age. But like all statistics, this is not as simple as it first appears.

Many fatality figures for senior road users include pedestrians and passengers, seriously distorting the true picture. However, there is no doubt that seniors are more frail than younger people and, as a result, more likely to be seriously injured or killed in a crash that may not have the same devastating impact on a younger person. More worryingly, older people take longer to heal, so can be incapacitated for far longer. In some cases, health issues will be the direct cause of the crash (increasingly referred to in the media as ‘a medical episode’).

Sadly, very few people bother to refresh their knowledge or skill throughout their driving careers.

Then there is the issue of health. Eyesight is obviously crucial in safe driving. Many senior drivers involved in a crash will claim that they didn’t see the other vehicle or object prior to colliding with it. Regular eye tests, every two years, should be an obvious requirement, not just for senior drivers but all drivers. Other medical conditions that affect the ability to drive safely include chronic pain, failing hearing, diabetic neuropathy and osteoarthritis. And then there’s the impact of the drugs senior drivers need to treat their conditions – painkillers, antidepressants and sleeping pills, for example. A recent study reveals that almost 30 per cent of seniors were taking at least five prescription medications.

The simple fact is that senior drivers, despite being at more risk as they pass the age of 70, crash less often per kilometre than teens. And they often don’t get credit for their safe driving habits.

Emmy Betz, associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, researches senior driver safety and says, “Older drivers are more likely to use seat belts and follow speed limits. They are less likely to drive at night or while intoxicated, or to text while they drive.”

Two policies in the US have been shown to reduce senior driver fatality rates: in-person licence renewals and additional vision tests. They work because they create an opportunity to identify drivers with functional shortcomings and refer them for further screening. Alternatively, some senior drivers who fear they may fail the screening, simply don’t bother to renew their licence and discontinue driving.

Taking a closer look at the data, drivers between 50 and 69 are statistically the least likely to be involved in a crash (282 per 100 million miles driven for the 50-59 age group [all figures US data] and 256 per 100 million miles driven for the 60-69 age group, compared to 2152 for the vulnerable 16-17 age group, 1136 for the 18-19-year-olds – it falls steadily after that, but rises again to 358 for the 70-74 age group, 369 for the 75-79-year-olds, 529 for those between 80 and 84 and peaks at 745 for the 85+ group).

Someone should be pointing that out to our authorities and the insurance companies, and seniordriveraus.com, will be doing precisely that.

What you can do for yourself
It is possible for you to keep yourself on the road for longer.

Cardiovascular exercise can slow cognitive decline. Strength and flexibility programs can improve your ability to rotate your neck and improve your response speed. If things are dire, senior drivers may benefit from working with a driver rehabilitation specialist, trained to assess abilities and recommend retraining, adaptive devices and even sensible driving restrictions. A driver rehabilitation specialist may be especially useful after a major health event such as a knee or hip replacement, open heart surgery, chemotherapy or a stroke.

What are the signs that ‘it’s time’?

    • other drivers regularly hoot at you, abuse you or make abusive gestures
    • you’ve had some accidents, even if they were only minor scrapes
    • you get lost even on roads you think you know
    • cars or pedestrians seem to appear ‘from nowhere’
    • you get distracted while driving
    • your doctor, family or friends have confided that they are worried about your driving
    • you drive less because you don’t feel confident
    • you have trouble staying in your lane or maintaining a consistent speed
    • you have trouble moving your foot between the accelerator and brake pedal and even, perhaps, confuse the two.
    • you’ve been pulled over by the police about the quality of your driving.

Senior driver training programs

You may never have considered taking a refresher course to brush up on skills you may have learnt decades ago, or to learn how road conditions and rules have changed since you gained your licence.

Such courses will be time and money well spent, and may contribute to you keeping your licence and right to drive for much longer than might otherwise be the case.

Motoring clubs in each state offer courses for senior drivers. Many will offer a self-assessment questionnaire, and completing one may surprise you at just how out-of-date your knowledge has become. There are also a number of independent driver training courses available and seniordriveraus.com will detail and assess these in a separate feature.

New South Wales: From the age of 75, NSW drivers need to complete a medical review every year, regardless of licence class. When you reach 85, you need to pass a practical driving assessment every second year to retain an unrestricted licence. You can get a modified licence without the practical driving test but you will be restricted to certain conditions and areas.

The NRMA conducts senior driving training to provide you with both the skills and confidence to stay on the road. The 60-minute refresher course assesses your knowledge, confidence and skills and costs between $65 and $85. The formal 60-minute driver assessment costs from $65 to $120. The 90-minute refresher and assessment course identifies areas that may require further improvement and costs from $97.50 to $138.

Call 1300 696 762. Prices vary by location.

Victoria: You can continue driving provided it is considered safe for you to do so. Should you develop any long-term or permanent physical or mental conditions that could conceivably affect your ability to operate a vehicle, you are legally obliged to notify VicRoads.

As well as making presentations to community groups, the RACV conducts a senior driving program and also offers advice on the best choice of car for senior drivers. It covers local driving, complex driving situations, how to develop specific skills and provides verbal and written feedback to and record progress.

Further details are available on 1300 788 229.

Queensland: Drivers over the age of 75 in Queensland are required to obtain a valid Medical Certificate for Motor Vehicle Driver and carry it with them at all times while driving. The certificate is valid for 12 months, so needs to be renewed every year.

The RACQ makes free presentations to community groups, and its Years Ahead program is one of the more popular. It is a 45-minute presentation that covers such topics as recent changes to Queensland road rules (including the ever-vexing roundabout rules and merging), medical considerations when driving and alternative transport options (including motorised wheelchairs).

Make enquiries by calling 1300 853.

South Australia: Senior drivers in SA, who don’t have a medical condition, are sent an annual self-assessment form once they pass the age of 75. The self-assessment can only be completed by visiting a doctor, and failure to do so will invalidate your licence.

The RAA conducts refresher lessons for seniors with 60 or 90-minute lessons. Prices are $85 for 60 minutes ($95 for non-members) and $115 for 90 minutes ($125 for non-members).

Western Australia: In WA, drivers who reach the age of 80 are required to undergo an annual medical assessment and complete the senior driver’s licence renewal declaration before they are allowed to renew their licence.

Unfortunately, at the time of posting, the RAC in WA hadn’t seen fit to respond to our questions.

Tasmania: Drivers over 75 in Tasmania are not required to undertake an annual medical assessment but are strongly encouraged to self-assess their driving ability. They are also required to disclose any medical conditions.

Like Victoria, the RACT conducts The Years Ahead education program. They also offer a brochure on Fitness to Drive and another on Five Tips for Driving Wellness. Unlike other States, the RACT doesn’t offer a “one-size-fits-all” course for senior drivers but offers a $95 Licenced Driver Assessment which is a one-on-one session followed by a tailored program to suit specific requirements.

Northern Territory: There are no age-based restrictions in the NT but drivers are legally required to disclose any medical conditions affecting their ability to drive.

Australian Capital Territory: Drivers over 75 in the ACT must provide an annual medical certificate that confirms they are medically fit to continue driving.

Are you ever worried about losing your right to drive?

This article first appeared on seniordriveraus.com.

Paul Murrell is a motoring writer and creator of seniordriveraus.com, which specialises in “car advice for people whose age and IQ are both over 50”.

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Written by Paul Murrell

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