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Never mind the policemen, have you noticed that drivers are getting older?
About 75% of men and 33% of women aged over 70 hold a driver’s licence, and the number is expected to at least double over the next 20 years as improved life expectancy increases the number of older people in the population generally. So, inevitably, more people are asking whether older people are safe behind the wheel. And just what are the rules about driving in old age?
No age limit
At the moment there is no upper age limit for driving in the UK, which means you could carry on driving until you were a 100 or more. However, the DVLA will send you a form to renew your licence when you turn 70. You must then re-apply for your licence every three years.
There is no mandatory test or medical, but you must declare on the form that you are fit and able to drive safely. You must also meet the minimum eyesight requirement. In other words, 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 have a visual acuity of at least decimal 0.5 (6/12) measured on the Snellen scale, as well as an adequate field of vision. Your optician can perform the test, and NHS eye tests are free for people aged 60 and over.
You must also tell the DVLA if you have one of a long list of health conditions. Some are more common as you get older, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. But if you are diagnosed at any age with an illness or injury you should ask your doctor if you need to notify the DVLA. Failure to do so is a criminal offence and carries a maximum penalty of £1,000.
Compulsory driving tests for older motorists are widely judged to be unfair.
After all, there are plenty of ‘dangerous’ drivers across all the age groups, and many would argue that experience counts for a great deal on the road. There is also evidence that older drivers are actually safer than younger motorists.
An in-depth study of crash data and statistics by the IAM, for example, found that, while 8% of drivers are over 70, they are only involved in around 4% of injury crashes. By contrast, 15% of drivers are in their teens and twenties, but they are involved in 34% of injury crashes.
Playing it safe
The impressive safety record of older drivers can at least partly be explained by self-regulation. Many elderly motorists change their driving pattern, avoiding driving in bad weather, at night or during peak traffic periods. In a survey by the AA, more than 50% of drivers over 75 admitted they were more cautious and avoided heavy traffic and long trips more than they did when they were 50.
There are negative statistics about older drivers. For example, motorists over 85 are four times more likely to cause a crash than other drivers, perhaps because of a decline in their mental and physical abilities. And a recent study led by psychologists at Nottingham Trent University found that older people are three times slower at processing visual information from more than one object, which could make them more dangerous drivers.
Dr Duncan Guest, a psychologist in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences, says: “The work clearly has implications for everyday situations in which visual scenes are composed of multiple objects – our research suggests older people would be significantly slowed in such situations. “Drivers, for instance, need to search cluttered visual scenes for targets such as road signs and buildings, while encoding and storing information about multiple other vehicles or hazards.” The problems are deemed to be particularly acute at junctions, roundabouts and slip roads.
If you are worried about your own driving, or perhaps concerned about the driving ability of an older relative, a number of organisations, such as the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) and the AA, run refresher courses for older motorists to brush up on their driving skills. You can also get advice from a Mobility Centre or even your local council. Remember, it’s your responsibility to make sure you are safe behind the wheel.