older drivers are not unsafe; they are, in fact, safer than most other age groups…

A Look At Life: Driving

27th March 2015

The most terrifying 12 minutes…

Heather Harris

The most terrifying 12 minutes of my life were not childbirth, Alton Towers rollercoasters or a trailer for Silent Witness. Instead, they were a simple drive from home along pretty country lanes to buy petrol. I was in the passenger seat and soon clinging to the inside door handle – not in an effort to escape but merely to stop myself being flung around, rag doll style, as the driver lurched violently to avoid the pigeons (which, of course, flew off).

Despite travelling at 19mph in second gear, whiplash was an added threat as an emergency stop was executed to allow the three mile tailback to pass. Sadly, the lane was so narrow that the majority could only do so by driving up the opposite bank. The wrath of the drivers turned into knowing nods when they clocked my 85 year old mother-in-law, Doreen, at the wheel.

The horror continued as we came to the garage forecourt. A swift manoeuvre on entering had us facing the wrong way at the pumps – and was solved by an immediate reverse with no glance behind to check we weren’t about to wipe out an entire family, garage staff and the observing pigeon population.

Hastily jumping out and paying the £10 (she never likes to overfill) I made the ultimate sin of suggesting I drive home. It saved my sanity but resulted in a frozen silence for the rest of her visit. She knew she was on a slippery slope and the road ahead was not a happy one.

This scenario is played out in cars all over the country. According to online information service The Older Drivers Forum, ‘Talking about giving up driving can be emotionally charged. Friends and family may be reluctant to raise the issue, especially if the older person is fiercely protective of their independence.’

And if like us, you’re a family who doesn’t do confrontation (except at Christmas) it’s very easy just to ignore the problem and cross your fingers every time your relative does an 17 point turn in reverse out of your driveway.

All too often, though, the decision is made for you. In our case there was a phone call from Doreen’s neighbour, with the immortal line “I don’t want to worry you but…”, followed, luckily, not by news of some hideous accident but by “your mother-in-law is currently driving on the wrong side of the road around the village.” The right side, presumably, was full of pigeons.

Consulting the law book we read “It is always the driver’s responsibility to make sure they’re safe. Their GP is the only individual legally able to stop their patient from driving.” At 70, a driver must renew the licence and simply has to state that they are fit and able to drive. Every three years the process is repeated. There is no requirement for a retest and no legal age at which you have to stop driving. According to DVLA figures there are 4,190,879 drivers aged 70+, including 17 aged over 103 – making my mother-in-law a positive novice.

And when asked by frustrated family members like me why the law doesn’t step in where relatives fear to tread and make a retest mandatory? The DVLA’s response comes faster than the average motorway driver: ‘Older drivers are not unsafe; they are safer than most other age groups. Eight per cent of drivers are over 70, yet they are involved in around four per cent of injury crashes. In contrast the 15 percent of drivers who are in their teens and twenties are involved in 34 per cent of injury crashes.’

What all the motoring agencies do agree on is that older drivers should be encouraged to take an assessment, offered by most local authorities. This is not a test – no passing or failing – but an opportunity for an assessor to explain any concerns they have, information that the driver is often more likely to accept than from a well meaning relative.

As the Older Drivers Forum points out, “A driver may simply need wing mirror adaptors or an elevated seat or new glasses or a smaller automatic car.”

Valerie Singleton – of Blue Peter fame – has recently fronted up a Still Safe To Drive Campaign with helpful videos (presumably because the over 70s are the only people who still own a video player) offering advice such as ‘Reflect on your driving, learn from your mistakes and near misses. Don’t pretend they’re not happening. Also avoid journeys that cause you stress or discomfort.’

Doreen is now happily on first name terms with all her local bus and taxi drivers. She will never again drive from her home to ours, or to the local petrol station – a state of affairs that she has now accepted. I, my fellow drivers and the local pigeons are all hugely relieved.

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