It’s a question that has been hotly debated more and more in recent years. DVLA data shows that of the circa 40 million licenced drivers in the UK, over 4.5 million are older than 70, while more than 1.2 million are aged over 80 and a remarkable 109,000 plus are in their nineties or even hundreds.
Older drivers making headlines for the wrong reasons
News headlines have increasingly placed a spotlight over the potential need to re-test drivers, such as the story of a 90-year-old gentleman in Manchester accelerating instead of braking while manoeuvring into a hospital parking space, killing two women walking nearby.Such incidents, combined with TV programmes like ‘100 Year Driving School’ in which elderly drivers’ sometimes questionable driving standards and competencies are focussed on, has led many in society to call for motorists to have to re-take their driving tests at various age milestones.
The new-style driving test
December 2017 saw some major changes introduced to the UK driving test, the independent driving element doubled to 20 minutes, pupils having to follow directions from a sat nav, traditional manoeuvres like 3-point turns replaced with realistic ones like in car park bays, and vehicle safety questions introduced.
From June 2018, motorway tuition accompanied by an approved driving instructor will become legally accessible and such updates to the training and testing regimes have largely been welcomed.
Busy roads and new technology to keep up with
With drivers who are now aged 70 and above having learnt to drive and passed their tests at a time when far fewer vehicles were on the UK’s roads, when cars perhaps travelled slower on motorways and when complex junctions were less ubiquitous, one survey by Continental Tyres even found that a quarter of Brits believe re-testing should be done every five years. The firm’s spokesperson said the results show that people recognise the importance of safety and in keeping up with automotive technology.
Could the system cope?
There are approximately 40 million licenced drivers throughout the UK and local media outlets regularly report on test centres struggling to accommodate the volume of people wanting to learn to drive and take their tests, sometimes resulting in months of backlogs. If licenced drivers were required to sit practical tests every five years, it’s unlikely that the system would cope.
While more regular updates to the driving test itself can’t be questioned in their sensibility and positive impact, it would surely be wiser from a logistical perspective to only introduce regular practical retests for drivers over a certain age. This, however, would no doubt give rise to claims of stigma and discrimination focussed on older people.
The current UK system
UK drivers over 70 do currently have to submit a self-assessment form every three years in order to renew their driving licence, but no actual medical or driver testing is carried out, presumably because of the burden it would place on the DVSA, DVLA, instructors and the drivers themselves. By their very nature, self-assessment forms are open to abuse meaning that a minority of drivers who know they aren’t fit to drive will still declare themselves competent each year, exposing other road users to undue risks.
With people typically living and working longer these days, even the landmark age of 70 is now perhaps too early for self-assessments, though, let alone on-road retests. Surprisingly, members of online forums aimed at the over-50s such as SilverSurfers seem largely in favour of mandatory re-testing, the prevailing view being that older drivers tend to be more oblivious and hence dangerous.
Some statistical findings
Maybe they’re right, as their sentiments tie in with psychologists from Nottingham Trent University who found that the over-65s take three times longer to process multiple objects at once than young people, older drivers therefore being less capable of dealing with distractions. A survey by over-50s insurer, Rias, also found that one in five motorists of that age admitted that they probably wouldn’t pass their practical driving test if they had to retake it.
What do automotive organisations say?
There are plenty of voices on the other side of the debate, though, with even the AA and RAC responding critically to calls for regular retests. “There is already a system in place to try identify people with medical reasons for being unfit to drive, not just old age”, commented Luke Bosdet from the AA, who feels that some older drivers would see retests as a filter trying to get them to surrender their licences, which would make it difficult for them to attend things like appointments independently.
Mr Bosdet also pointed to advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) like autonomous emergency braking (AEB) augmenting and enhancing the safety of many older drivers on today’s roads.
Are older drivers actually safer than the young?
Besides, surveys have often found older drivers to be no more dangerous on the road than young drivers, some findings even identifying older motorists as safer behind the wheel. Swansea University found that 17-to-21-year-old men are involved in up to four times more accidents than drivers over 70, often due to speeding or losing control.
Likewise, the Institute of Advanced Motorists (AIM) cited in their ‘Older Drivers – Safe or Unsafe?’ report that “eight per cent of drivers are over 70, yet they are involved in around four per cent of injury crashes. In contrast, the 15 per cent of drivers who are in their teens and twenties are involved in 34 per cent of injury crashes.”
Physical frailty and reduced mental responsiveness, though, are identified by most studies as factors resulting in a rise in accidents involving drivers aged over 75.
What do other countries do?
In Finland, drivers over 70 are required to undergo regular medical check-ups in order to renew their licence, and the country even goes to the extreme of retesting drivers over 45 every five years. Neighbouring Sweden, though, doesn’t have such a system, yet the number of crashes there is very similar. Further afield, states in Australia have similarly found little difference in accident rates between areas that retest older drivers medically and practically and those that don’t. Other European countries including Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal require retesting and medical exams for older drivers, with the frequency ranging from five years to annually depending on the age.
Unsurprisingly there are arguments for and against retesting older drivers when it comes to driving theory and real-world practical ability. With older people tending to remain more active these days, retesting them more often than every five years after 70 is probably too extreme but it can’t be argued that they need to keep up with the latest trends on the road, driver behaviour and technology in order to remain safe behind the wheel on today’s roads.