The UK has about ten million registered drivers over the age of 70 – including several hundred who have passed the century – and for many, their driver’s license stands for independence and freedom.
But when do older drivers become unsafe to be behind the wheel? And what is your responsibility if it is your loved one whose driving is at stake?
Earlier this year, Hampshire police made a plea for families with elderly relatives to keep a close eye on their driving skills after a 70-year-old man had a lucky escape when he backed up his car into a river.
The motorist had gone out for a ride in the New Forest when he became disoriented and accidentally backed off a boat in the Beaulieu River.
Man with dementia: under the Road Safety Act 2006, all driving licenses expire at the age of 70 and must then be renewed every three years in order to continue driving (file image)
He was rescued by local residents who pulled him from the car.
Tests later revealed he had undiagnosed vascular dementia, which causes confusion, speech problems and difficulty reading and writing.
The man later handed in his driver’s license to the Driving License Service (DVLA).
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After the incident, Sergeant Nick Tucker of the Hampshire Constabulary said: ‘We are all getting older and our eyesight and some of our faculties diminish over time, but we don’t always notice it.
“If you have an elderly relative or friend who drives, remind them to have their eyesight checked regularly; and if they are concerned about their health, have them talk to a GP.’
This month, another tragic example exposed the dangers.
Retired Shelagh Robertson, 75, was acquitted of causing the death of a baby by careless driving, due to insanity resulting from undiagnosed dementia.
She had been driving home on January 22 last year when she hit the path of a van and forced it onto the sidewalk where it killed Rachael Thorold and her five-month-old baby, Louis, and inflicted serious injuries on Rachael.
James Leonard, in defense, told the jury that Shelagh was “ill-equipped to negotiate the intersection” due to dementia, but that she was not aware of this as she was undiagnosed at the time.
Prosecutor David Matthew said: “There is no doubt that Shelagh Robertson suffers from some form of dementia and suffered from it in January 2021.”
And an MRI scan showing shrinkage of a part of the brain linked to memory and language was “strong evidence of that.”
According to the Road Safety Act 2006, all driving licenses expire at the age of 70 and must then be renewed every three years in order to continue driving.
To renew a driver’s license, the driver must declare any health problems that may affect driving and verify that they can read a 20-meter (approximately 65 ft) license plate.
By law, motorists of any age must inform the DVLA if they have a medical condition that could affect their ability to drive safely.
Retired Shelagh Robertson, 75, acquitted of causing the death of a baby by careless driving, due to insanity due to undiagnosed dementia
This includes strokes, epilepsy, glaucoma (which causes vision loss), and the snoring-related condition sleep apnea, a common cause of severe daytime sleepiness.
Anyone with these conditions must renew their driver’s license every three years and either undergo a medical examination or obtain a certificate of fitness to drive signed by a doctor.
The DVLA will then decide if they are fit to drive.
Although studies show that older drivers are not more involved in road accidents than younger people, they are at greater risk of diseases that affect their driving ability.
The Alzheimer’s Society says a diagnosis of dementia does not in itself mean the end of driving, and one in three people with the condition still drive because they are in the early stages of the disease and are judged to be safe behind the wheel.
But once they reach middle-stage dementia — when symptoms like memory loss and confusion become more common — most have to stop.
Convincing the elderly to hand over their car keys can be extremely difficult, says Gill Livingston, a professor of psychiatry of the elderly at University College London.
“For many people, driving is a symbol of freedom and many just don’t want to give up,” she says.
‘Part of the problem is that people tend to overestimate their own driving skills and think they are safe on the road when they are not.
‘But you have a legal obligation if you have dementia to inform your insurer and the DVLA of your diagnosis. You could be putting yourself at risk or, worse, killing someone.’
In August 2019, an 83-year-old woman died when her Vauxhall Corsa collided with a lorry in Bedfordshire.
An inquest concluded that Joan Williams, from Flitwick, Bedfordshire, had crashed into confusion as a result of the dementia she had been diagnosed with 18 months earlier.
But despite the advice of her GP and family to inform the DVLA, she had not done so.
Failure to notify the DVLA of a health condition could result in a £1,000 fine, while failing to notify your insurance company means the policy is void.
So if a patient is unwilling or unable to alert the authorities, should their doctor or relatives blow the whistle?
The General Medical Council (GMC), which regulates doctors, says medics can report patients they believe are at risk because of medical problems.
But the guidance emphasizes that this should be a last resort.
“Physicians have a responsibility to their patients, but they also play a vital role in protecting the population,” a GMC spokesperson told Good Health.
dr. Richard Vautrey, a GP in Leeds and a member of the British Medical Association council, says GPs are reluctant to report patients without their consent.
“But in my experience, most drivers recognize when it’s time to stop.”
Failure to notify the DVLA of a health condition could result in a £1,000 fine, while failing to notify your insurance company means the policy is invalid
But that is not always the case. In 2013, a new piece of legislation was introduced in the UK, known as Cassie’s Act, which allows police to conduct roadside eye tests to catch drivers with unsafe vision and revoke their driving licence.
It followed the death of 16-year-old Cassie McCord in Essex in 2011, after an 87-year-old driver climbed the sidewalk when he pressed the accelerator instead of the brake.
It later emerged that three days earlier, police had spent two hours persuading the driver to surrender his driver’s license after being involved in a minor collision and failing an eye test.
Nick Freeman, a car lawyer based in Manchester, says doctors and motorists alike are largely unaware that a driver doesn’t have to have a diagnosed medical condition to be rated unsafe by the DVLA, but rather symptoms that can make you less aware. make it safe.
“It doesn’t have to be a diagnosis of dementia,” he says.
‘The criteria are that you, or someone else, simply feels that a medical problem is affecting your driving ability. Then you have a duty to report.’
And while the family has no legal responsibility to report it, he adds, “you could argue they have a moral responsibility to do so.”
Nick Freeman campaigns for mandatory medical and eye tests every two years for all drivers over 70.
“There is often an unwillingness among the elderly to face the problem,” he says.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents says that while there is no set age to stop driving, ‘research shows that drivers in the mid-1970s sometimes begin to have problems assessing complex or fast-paced traffic situations.
“Fragility also increases with age, so when older people are involved in a collision, their injuries are often more serious and recovery takes much longer.”