Road safety experts have renewed calls for better assessment of older drivers as the latest figures show deaths involving those aged over 75 have increased by 5.2 per cent over the past five years — more than twice the national average.
National figures in the 12 months to February 2019 show older drivers now account for 12 per cent of all fatalities even though they only make up approximately 6 per cent of licence holders.
Drivers aged 17 to 25 still account for a higher number of road deaths but the fatality rate of our youngest road users has fallen by 13.8 per cent in the last three years alone.
Most states in Australia still do not have compulsory testing of older drivers.
The strictest regulations are in NSW where all drivers must undergo a medical assessment each year from the age of 75. From the age of 85 drivers in NSW must also complete a practical driving assessment every two years.
In most other jurisdictions licensing authorities rely on families, doctors or police to voluntarily notify them about an elderly driver who is deemed unsafe.
However, experts say some families don’t notify authorities about a dangerous elderly driver because of the inconvenience of having to drive them around once their licence is surrendered.
“I’ve had a daughter say ‘but dad lives 100km away, if they’re not driving I’m going to have to go and do it so I need him to drive’ and … they do not dob them in,” says Kate Walker, an occupational therapist who assesses the driving ability of elderly and impaired drivers.
“They will say things like ‘but I won’t let my kids get in the car with him’. And I say ‘well, it’s not just about your kids, it’s about everybody else on the road’,” says Walker, from Upshot OT, one of a small group of qualified assessors who can recommend the approval or cancellation of licences in NSW.
“Sometimes (elderly drivers) are a bit cranky with me and I say to them ‘your doctor sent you to me, they could have already cancelled your licence. They’ve chosen not to, they think you might be ok to drive but they want to make sure you’re safe’,” says Walker.
“It gives everybody peace of mind whether the person is safe to drive or not. If I recommend a person’s licence be cancelled … the report goes to the doctor and the RMS and the RMS will cancel their licence.”
However, Walker says age alone should not be a deciding factor on the ability of an older driver: “I’ve driven with 92-year-olds who are fantastic drivers and I’ve driven with 52-year-olds who are appalling.”
“It’s very difficult to measure,” the occupational therapist says. “I might see someone who’s really quite unwell and if they say to me … ‘I only drive on days when I’m feeling good’, that’s music to my ears,” says Walker.
“But if they say to me ‘yes all this stuff is wrong with me, but I will drive no matter what, even if I haven’t slept at all and I’ve got sleep apnea and I have trouble with microsleeps, I will drive any way,’ I will cancel their licence. I will recommend cancellation or put conditions on their licence.”
The Australian Road Safety Foundation’s Russell White says governments need to do more to encourage better hazard perception training throughout our driving years.
“At the moment we focus on driver ability at the beginning and the end of our driving years, but we need to improve people’s situational awareness and hazard perception throughout their driving years,” says White.
“If someone isn’t trained to spot danger then that poor behaviour gets magnified as they age. Elderly driver retesting is not necessarily about age, we need to be better at detecting people’s ability to drive as they get older.”
Elderly driver rules by state:
NSW: Aged 75 to 84 annual medical review, 85 and older annual medical review and a practical driving test every two years.
QLD: Aged 75 and over medical review every year, no practical driving test.
VIC: No requirements for regular medical checks, relies on referral by doctor, family member or police.
SA: Medical assessment at age 70, no practical driving test.
WA: Medical assessment from the age of 80. From 85 and over medical assessment and practical assessment.
NT: No elderly driver guidelines, relies on voluntary reporting.
TAS: “Drivers aged 75 years and over in Tasmania no longer need to undertake an annual medical assessment to keep their licence”. Authorities cite data that shows older drivers are under-represented in fatal crashes. However, the data is from 2010, nine years ago.
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling