How old is too old to drive? In mid-2018, debate was once again ignited on this topic following the death of a young girl in a Sunshine Coast shopping centre car park.
Six-year-old Indie Armstrong was fatally injured when a car reversed into her and her family on a pedestrian crossing. When it was revealed the driver was an 86-year-old woman, joining other recent high-profile incidents involving older motorists, a number of questions were raised: should they be subject to increased checks? Should family members be able to raise their concerns? Is there an age that should be classed as ‘too old’ to drive? Are older motorists actually more dangerous, or is the panic overstated?
With Australia’s population set to get older, it’s an issue that will only become more relevant, and as such, we discuss this topic in more detail below.
In May 2018, surgeon Gratian Punch, from the Lismore Base Hospital in Northern NSW, thought he witnessed an increase in road fatalities involving older drivers.
Analysing data from from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics between 2007 and 2018, Dr Gratian Punch found that deaths of those aged between 65 and 74 had increased nationally by 2.3% every year since 2007, with those 75 and older rising by 1.2% each year.
He also found a 9% increase in hospitalisations for drivers over the age of 65, in contrast to a 1.8% rise for younger drivers.
“There is a concerning sub-group in which their death rate is increasing and they're the only age group which we see an increase in the death rate or fatal car accident data in that period," he told the ABC.
"While they're not the largest number of age groups involved in fatal crashes, they're the only age groups in which it's getting worse." - Dr Gratian Punch
However, some professionals doubt the link. Nancy Pachana, a psychology professor from The University of Queensland, told the ABC in June 2018 that experienced drivers do have benefits, including having a “mental map” of potential hazards.
"Most of the research, if not all the research, across countries including Australia says that driving is a skill that benefits from experience," she said.
"Older adults, even when they are starting to have some difficulties with vision, not being able to see as well at dawn or dusk … they tend to do some compensation so they either won't drive at some times of day, sometimes they might slow down a bit."
"So older drivers, if they are healthy in terms of their physical health and their cognitive health, are among the safest drivers." — Nancy Pachana
For many, driving is the key to independence and prevents isolation, a car required to freely access essential amenities and social activities. Particularly at an advanced age, where retirement removes day-to-day interactions and increases the likelihood of independent living. In these instances, the autonomy offered by a car is invaluable, making revoking one difficult and emotional.
In Queensland, drivers over 75 require a new medical certificate every 13 months to retain their license. While health varies from person to person, the law cites potential degradation of vision, movement, and cognitive processing and reflexes as reasons for concern.
When a doctor is suspicious of accelerated changes, they can demand more regular checks, as well as restrict the license to only during the day, eliminating highways, or distances more than five kilometres away.
In an internal survey conducted by Smith’s Lawyers, there was strong support to keep the age of compulsory health checks the same (45.9%) or lower (48.8%). This is a perspective that varies substantially depending on respondent - 61.4% of respondents aged 18-44 think the age of mandatory checks should be younger, while only 30.7% of those aged 45% believe the same.
There are many suggestions for increasing the safety of older drivers, allowing for the same independence while being aware of potential dangers. While there are voluntary measures in place, such as refresher courses on driving skills, they aren’t required after a certain amount of time or at all — currently, the only law surrounds general health, not proficiency skill behind the wheel (and, on the flip side, seniors don’t speed or take risks). Additionally, limiting by age would be ineffective, as the process of aging is not one-size-fits-all.
But there are numerous suggestions when it comes to the safety of older drivers. The need for adaptive equipment, strength exercises to prolong physical ability, and education on potential medication side effects are all suggested safeguards.
Many experts argue the necessity for periodic mandatory driving tests and safety courses that could correct any wayward skills, answer questions, and evaluate potential issues with response times and sensory discrepancies, things that can’t be discovered by a GP visit.
From the survey conducted by Smith’s Lawyers, there was a very strong response for older drivers having to retake tests (79.9% of respondents), with 39.5% believing this should occur at age 75 - markedly younger than the current retest age in NSW of 85. This included older respondents, with 63.8% of those aged over 65 supporting the idea of a shift in the rules.
Such a program has already shown success in QLD, with the SAFER Driving Intervention program for teenagers being tested on seniors.
Dr Bridie Scott-Parker, who heads Queensland's Adolescent Risk Research Unit, has tested the observation skills of 120 older drivers with her team at the University of the Sunshine Coast, placing them in a large simulator with participants needing to call out ways to avoid hazards.
"After the training we can see they improve in their perception and comprehension off the road [and] not just to saying 'oh, there's a car' or 'there's a P driver'," project manager Dr Bonnie Huang told ABC.
Interim results show that for those aged 60 to 74, the drivers able to spot hazards rose from 20% to 41%.
Another method would be to offer alternatives to driving that offer the same convenience and independence of driving at an affordable price point, avoiding the necessity to make lifestyle changes after losing a license.
Some regions around Australia are now offering the Community Flyer and similar services, which delivers door to door shared transport for those who are unable to drive.
“Access to transport has a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of older people, as they need to access social, cultural and recreational activities, health care and other service providers, shopping and a range of other activities,” a paper written by COTA Tas says.
“Lack of access to transport due to problems of affordability, safety, availability, convenience, lack of confidence and information, and appropriateness of the type transport available can act as a barrier to older people’s participation in the community.” — COTA Tasmania