When ARE you too doddery to drive? After a spate of tragedies involving elderly motorists, EVE SIMMONS investigates the risks and asks whether over 70s should face obligatory health tests before being allowed behind the wheel
- John Norton, 80, killed himself, a passenger and ex-soldier driving down M40
- John Place, 73, hfailed to spot a redlight and killed a girl, 3, on her way to nursery
- Number of drivers over 70 referred by DVLA for extra testing has increased 20%
When they leave the Welcome Break service station on the M40 near Oxford, drivers are met by a roundabout that filters traffic back on to the motorway heading either north or south.
If London-bound drivers should miss the exit to the capital and take the next one by accident, they’ll end up on the A40 heading back toward Oxford. After a mile or so, the road ends in what looks like a junction on to a two-way road.
But it is in fact a slip road on to the dual carriageway heading north. Turn right, and you end up driving in the wrong direction up the A40, which then merges with the M40. It’s a terrifying scenario.
Stuart Richards was described as the ‘rock of the family’. He is pictured on the right during a cycling trip with his father, Mel
And this, it would appear, was the lethal error made by John Norton, 80, and his passenger, 87-year-old Olive Howard, last month as they made their way home to High Wycombe.
The outcome was tragic: driving at frightening speed, the couple’s Subaru, which was towing a caravan, ploughed into oncoming traffic. John, who was recovering from cancer treatment, and Olive were killed, as was 32-year-old Stuart Richards, a former soldier from Stockport.
Although the exact details are not yet known, it is difficult not to note the age of the driver and his health – and the fact that this is just one in a recent series of catastrophic road accidents that were the result of mistakes made by older drivers.
In March last year, 73-year-old John Place, who had poor vision, accidentally mowed down a three-year-old girl on her way to nursery in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands, when he failed to spot a red light at a pedestrian crossing.
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Months later, Norman and Doreen Clarke were killed on a Welsh motorway when 81-year-old Norman mistook the accelerator for the brake, sending them through the central reservation barrier and into a tree.
And in August, emergency services rushed to Bankfoot railway station in Newcastle, where a confused elderly woman had driven on to the train tracks, risking both her life and thousands of passengers.
Sadly, these are not isolated cases. Figures seen by The Mail on Sunday show that in the past year, the number of drivers aged over 70 referred by the DVLA for extra testing has increased by 20 per cent, from 4,424 to 5,500.
According to Driving Mobility, the UK’s only provider of medical driving assessments, more than half of these pensioners will fail these tests and see their licences revoked as a result.
Although it is generally assumed that reckless younger drivers are the biggest danger, new DVLA figures prove this isn’t the case.
Drivers over 65 were responsible for eight per cent of the total driving offences committed in 2017, compared to three per cent committed by under-22-year-olds.
The over-70s are twice as likely as 17-year-olds to be pulled over for speeding offences, and three times more likely to misread traffic or road signals.
While young men remain responsible for the most fatalities, risky driving among the five million pensioners on the road is becoming a growing concern – especially as the number of OAPs on the roads increases by 750,000 every year.
ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN?
Drivers aged 80 or over are four times as likely to crash than others, says Sergeant Rob Heard, a road safety officer for Hampshire Police, who also runs The Older Drivers Forum – an organisation that ‘keeps older drivers on the road safely, for longer’.
Sgt Heard says: ‘The number of serious driving offences being committed by this age group is slowly increasing.
‘Older drivers need more time to process information. They make slower decisions and cannot predict hazards as risks. They may also lack mobility and peripheral vision.’
Sgt Heard’s passion stems from having personally witnessed the devastating impact of ageing eyesight on British roads.
In March 2011, he was called to a burning car on the A30 near Basingstoke in Hampshire.
Inside it was 28-year-old Neil Colquhoun, who had been driving home from a friend’s house when a large Volvo, travelling the wrong way down a dual carriageway, smashed into him at 60mph, causing his small Vauxhall to burst into flames.
Neil was trapped in his car and died from his injuries. The Volvo driver, 89-year-old Turner Waddell, was blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other.
Neil’s mother, Patricia, says: ‘It was so cruel. The driver had failed an eye test the day before the crash and was showing signs of early dementia.
‘He’d forgotten he’d turned on to a dual carriageway. He should never have been on the road.’
Waddell received a nine-month suspended prison sentence.
A THIRD OF ALL DRIVERS CAN’T SEE PROPERLY
According to charities the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and Action on Hearing Loss, a quarter of drivers over 70 suffer from ill health, three-quarters struggle with hearing and half will lose at least some of their sight.
While all this is a natural result of ageing, on the roads a mere squint could mean the difference between life and death.
A recent report by the Association of Optometrists found that the vision quality among as many as a third of all drivers falls below legal standards.
It is estimated that more than 2,000 accidents could be avoided each year if regular eyesight checks were in place.
The UK has some of the most lax visibility laws in Europe, with no mandatory eye exams involved in driving tests at any age – apart from reading a number plate 20 yards in the distance during your original driving test.
Lethal error: John Norton’s Subaru and caravan on the wrong side of the M40
In September, Sgt Heard and his colleagues in the Thames Valley, Hampshire and West Midlands regions cracked down on erratic drivers by introducing roadside eye tests on motorways.
They stopped vehicles at random and ordered motorists to complete a basic sight test. Those who failed had their licence revoked on the spot. The results of the tests are expected to be released publicly in the next few weeks.
But Sgt Heard believes even this is not enough. ‘The 20-yard test doesn’t account for peripheral vision loss – we need a dedicated eyesight test for older drivers involving field of vision. The law needs to change.’
The recent series of tragedies coincides with new Government action to stop unsuspecting, hazardous drivers in their tracks.
A cross-party parliamentary group led by MP Jack Dromey is debating the introduction of mandatory eye examinations and medical check-ups for drivers.
Top of the agenda for the lobbying group is the question of medical check-ups for the over-70s.
Jonathan Lawson, CEO at Vision Express, which is involved in Mr Dromey’s group, says: ‘There’s no legal requirement for drivers to have a regular eye test. There is a strong case for more frequent testing for older drivers to ensure that as drivers age and as eyesight inevitably deteriorates, we keep them and pedestrians safe.’
DRIVERS WITH DEMENTIA: A HIDDEN HAZARD
When you reach 70 you are required by law to renew your licence via an online or postal form. This involves a questionnaire – essentially a tick-box exercise – which relies on applicants’ honesty for accurate medical information about any medical conditions or disabilities that might compromise their vision or ability to drive, such as arthritis or dementia.
If you lie, and get caught, you face a £1,000 fine.
GPs and optometrists are not legally required to inform the authorities of a patient’s diagnosis, and according to Samuel Nahke from the road safety charity BRAKE, most GPs are more concerned about patient confidentiality than about road safety.
WOULD YOU TAKE A FITNESS TO DRIVE TEST?
Those over 70 who have regular eye tests and driving appraisals every two to three years are far less likely to be involved in a crash, and end up driving for longer, according to Sgt Heard.
And in response to growing concern about the safety of older drivers, the DVLA is now funding a nationwide expansion of new Fitness To Drive tests specifically designed both for drivers with medical needs and for those over the age of 70.
Motorists can choose to take the test instead of penalty points following an offence. Anyone can volunteer to undergo an assessment, but most are referred by the DVLA and 95 per cent are aged over 70.
If the test finds a driver unsafe to continue behind the wheel, they are likely to lose their licence.
But it’s not all bad news – some drivers are offered free monthly lessons and a review test after three months and memory, vision and medical tests can help to identify conditions such as arthritis which might prompt a driver to get their vehicle adapted. For 67-year-old Kenneth Billins, from Hertfordshire, who suffered a debilitating stroke in June, the fitness to drive assessment has proved to be life-changing.
‘I had weakness on my left leg and down my left arm and thought I’d never be able to drive again,’ says Mr Billins, who relies on his car to travel to work at a local steel factory.
He volunteered for the driving assessment and found he was more competent than he had feared. Simply by changing from a manual gearbox to automatic, he’s back on the road.
‘I wouldn’t have any independence without my car. It’s crucial for my social life,’ he says.
He remains realistic and is fervently committed to annual, eyesight check-ups, as well as full disclosure of any medical conditions to the DVLA.
So when does he plan to hang up his keys?
Like many drivers, he’s unwilling to give up his independence. ‘As long as I am in control and look after myself, never,’ he says.
For Sgt Heard, Mr Billins is a shining example of how older drivers can benefit from regular tests – a scheme he’s working to implement.
‘The current method of testing is not fit for purpose,’ Sgt Heard says. ‘The number of collisions involving older people will only get worse, given the ageing population.’
Next March marks the eighth anniversary of Neil Colquhoun’s tragic death. For his mother Patricia, fighting for tighter road regulations for older drivers remains a lifelong commitment.
‘Drivers in their 80s and 90s should have a medical and eyesight tests involving reaction times,’ she says.
‘It’s not just about them. It’s to protect other people on the road. We need to stop what happened to my son happening to others.’
I’ve got dementia… but I’m still driving
By Bonnie Estridge
This is a very tricky subject. I love having a car, but because of my condition there’s a chance I may not be able to drive for much longer.
After my diagnosis last year, we were told I had to inform the DVLA that I had early- stage dementia.
My husband Chris and I filled in a form online, then the DVLA wrote to my GP and consultant. The only question I was asked was whether my vision was impaired in any way, which it isn’t.
Six weeks later, my new licence arrived. This has to be renewed every year and I presume they’ll repeat the process. We’ve also informed the insurance company.
So should I be driving now? Well, at 67 I am not a doddering old biddy.
Chris says I shouldn’t be behind the wheel, but let’s just say we’ve agreed to disagree.
When I wrote in my regular Mail on Sunday column The A Word that I’d got lost while driving to the dentist – a trip I’d done countless times before – I received quite a few emails from readers who agreed with my long-suffering husband.
I certainly CAN drive, so it’s right that I’m legally allowed to, and my situation is self-limiting.
These days I only feel confident tootling along to the nearby Sainsbury’s or TK Maxx. I never liked going on the motorway anyway, so I won’t be starting now.
My parking may be a little strange but to be honest, I think it always was! But I’ll keep driving until I or my doctors decide it’s time to stop.
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