Australia’s ageing population means our roads could become less safe, but new research shows much more can be done to identify older drivers who are endangering themselves and others.
Older drivers account for a growing proportion of Australia’s road deaths, but there is no national consensus on whether drivers over a certain age should be subject to mandatory road safety screening.
“There is an urgent need to develop evidence-based assessments to identify older individuals who may be unsafe drivers,” a new Australian study published in JAMA on Thursday said.
“While the road toll is decreasing in Australia on average, deaths among older Australians are actually increasing,” UNSW Ageing Futures Institute director and NeuRA senior principal research scientist Kaarin Anstey told The New Daily.
“And it’s partly because we’ve got an ageing population and we have more older drivers on the road, but also because older drivers make more errors.
Cognitive impairment and eye disease both increase in old age and impact on driving abilities.”
An absence of nationwide screening means a significant number of older drivers could be endangering themselves and others on the roads.
Led by Professor Anstey, the researchers put 560 drivers aged 63 to 94 through their driving paces, with a series of on-road and off-road driving tests.
Getting your licence, again
The participants were divided into three groups: A control group, a group with minor cognitive impairments, and a group with vision impairments.
About 8 per cent of the control group failed the driving tests, 11 per cent of the cognitively impaired group, and 20 per cent of the vision-impaired group.
When it comes to the efficacy of off-road screening tests, the study identified 77 per cent of drivers who also failed to pass an on-road test with a driving instructor.
The off-road tests also cleared 82 per cent of those who went on to pass their on-road test, suggesting these tests correctly classify safe drivers.
“These findings suggest that brief off-road screening tests could be a cost-effective, objective tool to screen older drivers to determine who might be an unsafe driver and to indicate referral for an on-road driving test and that both off-road and on-road testing can help identify those unfit to drive,” Professor Anstey and colleagues wrote.
Off-road testing also helps address the shortage of driving instructors, and is a particularly useful tool in regional and remote Australia, Professor Anstey said.
“We do have tools that are validated, that can be used to screen drivers without them having to go through the whole rigmarole of an expensive on-road test,” she said.
Older drivers who fail a safety test won’t necessarily need to hand in their driver licences, Professor Anstey said.
Instead, testing can help identify drivers that require assistance or driving lessons in order to keep them on the roads safely.
We want people to keep driving and to drive safely,’’ Professor Anstey said.
“We’re not trying to find ways of stopping that, but we want it to be evidence based so that there’s a realistic assessment of ability.”
Driving rules for older Australians
Driving licences are handled by individual state and territory agencies and, as such, rules for older drivers vary across the nation – from New South Wales, which has the nation’s strictest requirements, to Victoria and the NT, which have no special requirements for older drivers.
These are the rules across Australia:
- Drivers aged 75 and up: Annual medical assessments
- Aged 85 and up: An annual medical assessment, plus a practical driving test every second year.
- There are no special requirements for older drivers. Drivers must self-evaluate and seek medical advice on whether they are fit to drive.
- Drivers aged 75 and over: Must have a valid medical certificate that is renewed by a doctor every 13 months.
- Drivers aged 80 and up: Must have an annual medical assessment before renewing their driver’s licence
- Aged 85 and up: In addition to an annual medical assessment, drivers may also be required to do a practical test.
- Drivers aged 75 and over: Must complete a self-assessment form each year.
- Drivers aged 65 and over: Can only renew their licence for five-year periods.
Australian Capital Territory
- Drivers aged 75 and over: Must get an annual medical examination from their doctor.
- No special requirements for older Australians, but the Northern Territory Registrar of Motor Vehicles can order a driver of any age to prove they are medically fit and can pass a driving test.
There are a number of steps you should take if you are concerned about your own, or someone else’s driving.
“Driving is a privilege, which brings responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is to ensure that you are capable of driving safely,” VicRoads says.
“Ask your doctor for advice about the effect that any illness, disability or medical condition may have on your ability to drive safely, including any medicines you may be taking.”
Each driver has a responsibility to “remind health professionals (doctors, specialists, eye doctors and pharmacists) that they drive” and “ask if any medical condition may affect the ability to drive safely”, VicRoads explains.
Any relevant conditions should be reported to your state or territory agency.
It is important to note that a failure to report a medical condition, impairment or disability, can not only jeopardise your life and the lives of others, but may also cancel your insurance cover.