MOTORING / Roadcraft for the older model: The number of drivers over 65 is rising rapidly, and that could prove dangerous. Jeremy Hart joins a course that boosts the confidence - and skills - of elderly drivers

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The Independent Culture
THE INSTRUCTOR, no spring chicken himself, didn't mince his words: 'There is no future in taking chances; it's like playing Russian roulette. You never win.' For the 22 women and two men present - all over 65, all lacking in bravado behind the wheel - it was just what they hadn't paid pounds 375 to hear. This was, after all, the start of a week-long course to boost their confidence on the road.

There were more crushing blows to come, delivered by this blunt-speaking teacher. Good driving, he explained, was all about looking ahead and being prepared - like good family planning. 'Unplanned families,' he added, 'are, like your driving, a mess.'

Welcome to what Saga Holidays (known to some as 'Send A Granny Away' or 'Sex And Games for the Aged') promotes as a vacation but runs as a strict institution. It is one of Britain's few schools to prepare drivers of bus-pass age for Britain's increasingly congested roads.

By the year 2000, the majority of drivers in Europe will be over 55, and the number of drivers over retirement age is set to rise significantly: a potentially hazardous prospect. The accident-per-mile rate is highest by far among young drivers. Between the ages of 30 and 65, the rate is at its lowest. 'But after that the accident-per-mile rate increases with age, rising quite steeply every five years,' says Dr Kit Mitchell of the Transport Research Laboratory in Berkshire, 'so if older drivers go on having the same accident rate as now the numbers of casualties will rise.'

Dr Mitchell, who is one of the country's leading experts on older drivers, explains how their accidents differ from those of younger drivers. 'One classic,' he says, 'is to stop at a junction, do everything perfectly, then pull out and hit something.'

On Saga's simulated urban road around a wartime airfield near Telford, 77-year-old Elizabeth Duff didn't even stop at the first road junction. Her instructor, Baz, an unflappable former Navy pilot, felt his right foot press hard to the floor - but in vain. The Volvo 440, though renowned for its safety features, did not have dual controls. Lilian, from Essex, was behind the wheel of an identical Volvo to Elizabeth's right as she barrelled through the junction. Luckily, she saw her wild antics and pulled up short of the impact zone. It came as something of a surprise to learn that last year's fleet of cars finished the course unscathed.

Elizabeth, who the day before had driven 300 miles from Edinburgh to Telford in her Vauxhall Nova, was clearly panic-stricken. She was sitting up so close to the wheel that she couldn't see how fast she was going. 'I can't see my speedometer,' she exclaimed as she approached the first corner, at speed. Baz was unruffled. 'Turn right here,' he coaxed. 'Which way is right?' squawked Elizabeth. 'No one in our family knows their right from their left . . .'

For an hour Elizabeth made laps of the airfield circuit like Damon Hill at Silverstone. 'I've been driving for 31 years and have lots of confidence in my car,' she explained, 'but after so many years I think things on the road have changed. That's why I came on the course.' Her driving was markedly calmer and more controlled after 60 minutes of smooth coaxing from Baz.

Elizabeth's partner for the first afternoon on the course was Irene Walker, another Scot. She was more typical of the pensioners who sign up for Saga's courses. 'I've been driving for six years,' she said, 'since my husband died. I do maybe 3,000 miles a year and would like to go further afield - but I just don't have the confidence.' Her fears were unfounded; she was allowed out on to the lanes of Shropshire once she had proved her mettle.

Many of the women on the course have the same needs as Irene. Their husbands drove most of the time when they were together, and the men are now either too ill to drive or have died. The women have been left with a car, but no confidence to drive it.

Outnumbered 11 to one, the two men at Telford felt slightly out of place. 'Men have a different attitude to women,' Saga's co-ordinator Chris Lavender said. 'In their eyes every male driver is perfect.' It seemed like the time to go out on the road with one, to put the male hypothesis to the test.

Eric Rose edged out on to the lanes between Telford and Shrewsbury like a learner, a 'Driver Under Instruction' sticker displayed prominently on his bumper. He, like Elizabeth, was nervous. The indicator stalk on the Volvo was on the opposite side to his Toyota Corolla. The wipers went like billyo every time we approached a roundabout. .

On the open road, Eric didn't hang about. On corners, he see-sawed the steering wheel like a racing driver. Ken, the instructor, asked Eric to pull up by the kerb, for an assessment. 'Do you ever watch motor racing?' he asked. Eric's eyes lit up. 'Oh yes, I used to hill climb and go to watch races at Spa and Hockenheim,' said Eric (who passed his test in 1936 on Guildford's cobbled streets).

'Well, I'd rather you forget the racing for now,' said Ken, running through a scribbled critique of Eric's roadcraft. 'You come into roundabouts too fast, and you gave the driver behind you a bit of a shock when you did a brake test with him right behind you. Apart from that, not bad.'

The Saga refresher course isn't all road-based. The days are split between practical and classroom work, including lectures on the benefits of automatic cars, road safety briefings, a skidpan session and a course in basic mechanics.

Last summer, 450 pensioners attended the Saga courses at Telford and at Livingston in Scotland. Almost all passed with flying colours, a tribute to the instructors on the course, which is sanctioned by the Institute of Advanced Motorists. 'A few didn't,' Chris Lavender adds.

The prime reasons for not graduating are predictable - failing to meet eyesight regulations, and being unable to master the basic controls. Rather than sending them away despondent, Saga puts the minority who fail in touch with an optician.

They may also tactfully suggest that now might be a good time to stop driving, relying on taxis or public transport instead. Proceeds from the sale of their car could be used to offset the cost. Half of Britain's drivers give up at 75. 'That moment comes to everybody in time,' said Gladys Marsh, a pupil from Birmingham. 'Everybody knows when.'

Dr Kit Mitchell and his colleagues are now working, with Department of Transport collaboration, on aids to help the older driver. 'As you age,' he explains, 'your reaction times increase and your vision deteriorates.'

Among the projects is the development of a device to help judge distances and speeds. It is an electronic sensor, based on radar or sonar, that measures the time gaps in between traffic to make pulling out on to a road less hazardous. 'It is not even at the prototype stage yet,' Dr Mitchell says, 'but it works well on our driving simulator.'

Ken Greenly, a specialist in vehicle design at the Royal College of Art, believes design initiatives won't stop there. 'The cars of the future will be aimed far more at people not in the full flush of youth,' he predicts. 'The whole look of cars will have to change. The scale of buttons and information from the dashboard will have to be easier to see, for a start.'

One likely innovation - changing gear using a flick switch on the steering wheel, as many Grand Prix drivers already do - will make life easier for older drivers who find manual gear levers a struggle. Automatic parking, sensors to monitor a driver's alertness and noise reduction systems will also be of benefit to the mature driver.

Eric Rose, fresh from his week at Telford, agrees. 'The course made me think,' he says. 'I was a little horrified to find out how far I was behind the times. You get away with it for so long . . . and then you don't'

A few places are still available on Saga's road confidence courses later in August and in early September. Phone 0800 300 600. The next series of courses begins in July 1995.

(Photographs omitted)