Tonight, ITV are showing a documentary looking at those who are over 100 years old and are still driving in this country. The documentary states that there are currently around 200 members of the centenarian population who are still driving legally and looks at the balance that must be found in allowing elderly drivers to maintain their independence whilst ensuring safety on our roads.
As a personal injury solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp, I regularly advise individuals who have suffered significant injuries in a road traffic accident as a result of the negligence of other drivers. I can’t help but wonder if some of those accidents could have been avoided if drivers were tested more regularly throughout their driving career to ensure that they remain competent drivers, particularly as we get older.
In this country, once you have passed your test (perhaps at the age of 17), in most instances you will not be required to retake your test again in your lifetime. At the age of 70, you must apply to renew your licence by signing a self declaration that you are fit to drive, however this is not accompanied by any formal medical assessment or other evidence attesting to your fitness. This is then repeated every three years. As a population in general we are ageing and at present there are more pensioners in the UK than there are children. The issue of when you become too old to drive safely is therefore likely to become more pressing in the years to come.
Age-related difficulties when driving
As we get older, there will be a degree of natural deterioration that is to be expected. Such deterioration however, does not necessarily mean that we are incapable of driving safely and any assessment as to a person’s abilities must be made on an individual basis. Having said this, generally speaking there are matters pertinent to driving that will likely affect us all.
Whilst some people’s eye sight doesn’t start off at 20:20 to begin with, it is extremely common that eye sight deteriorates as we get older. The minimum standard of vision for driving is that you must be able to read (with glasses or contact lenses, if necessary) a car number plate made after 1 September 2001 from 20 metres away. You must also meet the minimum eyesight standard for driving by having a visual acuity of at least decimal 0.5 (6/12) measured on the Snellen Scale (with glasses or contact lenses, if necessary). Finally, you must also have an adequate field of vision.
With many pensioners suffering from cataracts and/or a generally deteriorating eye sight, they may fail to see hazards in the road that another driver with better vision would see. This is particularly important when considering child pedestrians who may run out unexpectedly into the road. It is important that a driver see them and note their presence as early as possible to enable them to slow their speed in anticipation of such behaviour.
Should an optician/doctor be given a positive obligation to write to the DVLA following an examination with reports as to a person’s eyesight? Would this result in the elderly avoiding such appointments for fear of losing their licence? Would this be a step too far with regards to a person’s privacy? Personally, I think this is a step too far. Having said this, we are not always aware of our deficiencies and able to judge ourselves fairly and without bias.
The Highway Code details typical stopping distances which are made up of both ‘thinking distance’ and ‘braking distance’. This is in recognition of the fact that once we see a hazard, the vehicle will travel some distance before we apply the brakes as our brains consider what action to take. The period of ‘thinking time’ will depend to some degree on our concentration at the time, how tired we are and how fast we are able to react. As we get older, these reactions will slow. Further, elderly people are more likely to be effected by a variety of medical conditions requiring medication which can also affect their ability to react promptly.
If a vehicle is travelling at 30mph, in dry weather it will take approximately 23 metres (6 car lengths) to stop. The ‘thinking distance’ at this speed is around 9 metres. If an elderly person’s reaction time is significantly slower than their younger counter parts, the overall stopping distance will be significantly greater.
If an elderly person was made aware of the fact that it would take them longer to stop, following a medical examination, they may decide to travel at a slower speed when driving to ensure that they could stop in time should a hazard present itself. They may choose to leave a greater distance between them and the car in front to avoid rear ending the vehicle in front of them. Having the knowledge that it takes them longer to react could allow them to make an informed decision as to their driving abilities.
The licensing rules across the world vary greatly. A study commissioned by the European Commission compared the licensing rules of member states, including Finland and Sweden. Finland requires citizens to undergo a medical review every 5 years after the age of 45 before their licence can be renewed, and after the age of 70 the frequency for licence renewal is dependent upon the physician. Sweden in comparison does not require a licence to be renewed at all. The research concluded that the lack of a system of licence renewal in Sweden did not increase the number of road traffic accidents and in fact, the number of fatalities affecting older road users in Finland was actually greater, arguably due to their being an increased number of older pedestrians who were walking having lost their driving licence.
The RAC Foundation commissioned a report in February 2013 looking at driving choices for the elderly motorist. The report investigated whether self assessment tools can help older drivers make the right choices about their driving. The report found that the current method of self assessment is inadequate and that it should, among other matters, include a degree of testing of component abilities to include vision, hazard perception as well as other abilities.
Many older people rely totally upon their car as a way to get around, to maintain their friendships and for use in travelling to medical and other appointments. In many circumstances, to lose their licence would be a total loss of their independence. Whilst acknowledging this very real issue, such concerns cannot take precedence over the safety of the individual driver concerned or other road users.
A system of periodical testing throughout the lifetime of a driver would not only ensure a competent level of driving but would also act as a ‘refresher’ to all drivers on the road. Some commentators have warned that people may stop driving earlier than necessary for fear that they would not pass the test/medical examination. Regular testing throughout the life of a driver (rather than at a certain age) would then remove this stigma and ensure that irrespective of age, those who are competent and safe will continue to drive, and those who are not, will stay off the roads.