The census results published this week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) prove it: the nation is getting older, raising the question of whether the most mature drivers are safe on the roads.
The issue of when it’s the right time to retire your driving licence is an extremely sensitive one but it isn’t simply a question of road safety; for many older drivers, it’s also a question of independence and freedom. And as the average life expectancy in the UK creeps towards 82 – a rise of 10 years since 1970 – what we even consider to be “old” has changed as much as the roads we drive on and the cars we use.
Increased good health and mobility in older people are significant contributors for why there are now more than 5.8 million people aged 70 or over holding a full UK driving licence; a significant rise on the 4.5 million licence holders aged 70 or more in 2016, and accounting for some two-thirds of the 8.9 million over-70s living in the UK today.
Even so, a recent survey by the Department for Transport (DfT) has shone a spotlight on the question of road safety among older drivers, with the report’s findings showing that 42.6 per cent of contributory factors attributed to older drivers (classed as 70 years and over) in collisions related to “driver failed to look properly”. That’s compared with 35.7 per cent as an average for all drivers.
It raises the question of whether the Government should introduce a compulsory driving retest and/or medical examination for older drivers. Currently, drivers must reapply for their licence when they turn 70, and confirm that they are medically fit to drive, but it is a matter of trust that they complete the application truthfully. They must then reapply every three years, but there’s no official medical test required to prove visual or physical fitness.
However, the same DfT survey also shows that, per mile driven, a driver aged 17 to 24 has a much greater likelihood of being involved in a collision than one between 71 and 75. Younger drivers were involved in 1,384 collisions per billion miles driven; a figure that falls steadily with age, with those in the 71-75 age group actually the safest of all, with 211 collisions per billion miles driven. That figure rises slightly after that age, before spiking at more than 500 for those over 81, and 2,014 for those 86 and over.
What are the factors that might make older drivers more of a risk on the roads?
Peter Chapman, associate professor in psychology at Nottingham University and an expert in the field of older drivers, says: “Everyone thinks of reaction times but, actually, while they [older drivers] do slow, they don’t slow by much. The most likely issue for older drivers is the glare from lights at night-time – the contrast can be difficult.
“Neck mobility is another factor. The ability to move their neck quickly to look left and right at a junction tends to be much slower than that of younger drivers, and that’s relevant to why older drivers are more prone to having accidents at junctions.
“Another factor is how much cars have changed. Roads actually haven’t changed that much, but cars have, and while a driver who has been on the road for 50 years may have great essential driving skills, that length of experience can also make it harder to adjust to modern car interfaces. It’s something that manufacturers need to be more accountable for, and should be providing appropriate training for [to customers at handover] – especially with older drivers.”
However, Chapman points out that older drivers also tend to be very aware of their deficiencies, and have the lifestyle that allows them to take these issues into consideration. “Many drivers over 70 are retired, and will choose routes and times that suit them, perhaps avoiding driving at night and often also tending to avoid unfamiliar or very busy areas.”
When asked about factors relating to higher risk with older drivers, Neil Greig, policy and research director at IAM Roadsmart, also mentioned a transition to newer technology. “Changing a car late in life can cause issues. Training in the use of new features and systems is lacking for all drivers – not just the older ones – [and] dealers could do much more at handover.”
Eyesight is also a critical factor. The traditional “number-plate test”, in which a driver must prove that they can read a number plate from 20 metres (65ft 7in), is still the only vision test that a person must pass to gain their licence in the UK. But once the licence has been acquired, a driver never has to prove that they can pass that test again, no matter how their eyesight may change.
While a GP or eyesight specialist is obligated to tell a patient if they are no longer fit to drive due to medical or vision issues, it is the driver’s responsibility to then stop driving – temporarily or permanently, as per the advice – and to report it to the DVLA.
A spokesman for the Royal College of Ophthalmologists explained that “for older drivers, the two most likely concerns are either cataracts or macular degeneration. For cataracts, symptoms are glare, halos around lights, not being able to see so well and a lack of contrast sensitivity. Macular degeneration usually shows up as deterioration of central vision, which results in some distortion, or you might have blotches that you can’t see through, but both can be treated.
“Ultimately, if anyone of any age feels their vision is not as good as it was before, and it is having an impact on their driving or other aspects of their life, they should consult their optician.”
However, a mandatory eye test on re-application for a licence does have a ring of common sense to it, and various organisations would agree. The Older Drivers Task Force, which campaigns to support safe driving into old age, stated in a recent publication: “Consideration should be given to introducing mandatory eyesight testing with an optometrist or ophthalmic medical practitioner providing a driver ‘MOT’ of eyesight at licence renewal at the age of 70, and at subsequent renewals. If this is implemented, then the NHS contract for free eyesight tests for those aged 60 and above would need to be amended, so that drivers of 70 and above could have a more detailed ‘MOT’ eyesight test.”
The Older Drivers Task Force also calls for better signage around T-junctions, among other road infrastructure and signage improvements, in order to help make the roads safer for older drivers as well as other road users.
What else can be done to make sure that older drivers remain safe?
There are various aspects that could see safety among older drivers improve over the coming years, ranging from continued good health and longevity among the population to improvements in technology. While learning how to use a modern interface in a new car can be an issue for older drivers, the rise of semi-autonomous driver aids can contribute to great safety improvements.
Greig, at IAM Roadsmart, stated that, “In time, more automated features will help older drivers, if they are willing to embrace them. We are part of a new project that aims to improve information about the benefits of new automated systems to all drivers; there’s no point in new cars being laden with technology if drivers just switch it off.
“Equipment such as autonomous emergency braking (AEB) has the potential to save many lives over the next decade by protecting cyclists and pedestrians, as some older drivers struggle with the increasing number of cyclists on our roads. Blind-spot monitoring, reversing alarms, parking assist, lane-keeping assist and cross-traffic systems, which help at junctions, will be very useful, as older drivers often struggle looking all around them as their bodies get stiffer.”
All of this points to the fact that choosing the right car is also an important factor that older drivers can take control of for themselves. Looking for a car with a good field of vision is crucial, as is making sure you understand the controls clearly, even if it means making a nuisance of yourself at the dealership; dealers are becoming increasingly aware how important it is to deliver a comprehensive handover for new car buyers of any age, but especially for older people, who may find mobile phone-like touchscreen interfaces less intuitive, and advanced driver aids more confusing.
Alex Robbins, the Telegraph’s car-buying expert, has chosen a selection of the best cars for older drivers, both electric (EV), and with internal combustion engines (ICE).
Interestingly, choosing an automatic gearbox may not be the obvious safety move many would assume. According to Greig: “The advice to ‘get an automatic’ is being tempered as more incidents of pedal confusion are reported. This is where a driver who has driven a manual their whole life gets confused in an emergency situation and hits the wrong pedal. Unfortunately, predicting and training for this is not easy.”
What should you do if you’re worried about an older relative’s driving?
Generally speaking, then, the statistics suggest that expecting drivers to self-regulate has actually proven reasonably effective, despite the inherent trust issues involved. After all, while people over 70 may struggle with not wanting to lose the independence of driving, it is also an aspect of self-preservation if an incident on the road, or a concern over any sight or medical aspect, causes you to think that you may not be safe to drive any more.
It’s when an older driver is convinced they are safe, yet family or friends are concerned, that it can become difficult. The Telegraph’s Angela Epstein wrote about the difficulties with talking to older family members, after her mother survived a bad road-traffic accident, and it’s never an easy conversation to have.
Age UK recommends that you “approach the subject sensitively and tactfully. It may be difficult if the person reacts defensively, gets upset or feels humiliated. Remain supportive and positive. If the conversation is becoming particularly difficult or upsetting, you may want to stop and revisit it another time. Encourage the person to think about whether they’re putting themselves and others at risk, which might help them consider whether their driving is a concern.”
There are also various refresher courses aimed at older drivers, which can be a boost to confidence and a way for family to reassure themselves that an older relative is still safe on the road.
However, Greig, of IAM Roadsmart, says, “The majority of drivers who take our Mature Driver Review self-refer as a confidence boost. We had thought they might be referred by family or even a GP, but in most cases they are simply seeking reassurance that they are still safe to drive.
“We seldom get medical or disability-type referrals, as they are normally dealt with by Driving Mobility advice centres, which are part of an official DVLA system for returning licences after illness and assessing fitness to drive. In a small number of areas, the police can now send older drivers to a mobility centre as an alternative to a careless-driving ticket.”
The ultimate question of when to stop driving, then, isn’t an easy one and there is no defined answer. There is a wealth of data, however, showing that up to 75 years old drivers only get safer with age. It also suggests that allowing drivers to self-regulate when it comes to whether they should be driving is, largely, quite effective.
However, the sharp rise in collision rates for drivers over 80 years old is a significant cause for concern, and could be firm grounds for bringing in mandatory eye and medical tests as a way of trying to reduce the numbers of potentially dangerous older drivers that remain on the road.
As for when is the right time to stop driving? At the moment, the onus is all on you – the driver – to make that all-important decision.