Are oldies fit to be behind the wheel?

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The Independent Online
When Jill Wilson, a 34-year-old mother, was killed and her child seriously injured last week by a car driven by an 86-year-old, the collision fulfilled widespread predictions that elderly motorists are a timebomb ticking away on Britain's roads.

Four years ago, a London transport conference was warned of the dangers of older drivers as their numbers increased; a year later the General Medical Council urged the introduction of advice to doctors on reporting motorists unfit to drive, and only this spring Swedish researchers said old, forgetful drivers were a menace.

Yet despite the advice - and a series of accidents involving drivers over the age of 70 - Britain's ageing drivers have few restrictions on them. Under current regulations, all drivers irrespective of age are expected to declare health problems that might affect their driving. All a motorist over 70 needs to do to continue driving is fill in a form saying he or she is still fit to drive.

For years, the public perception has been that the majority of accidents are caused by young, speeding male drivers. Yet in 1995 there were 995 drivers over 70 killed or seriously injured in road accidents, and concern is growing at the involvement of older motorists in accidents involving pedestrians and bystanders.

In the past year, accidents involving elderly drivers included:

q A pensioner's car killing a young boy in Ham in Surrey as he sat with his parents on a river bank. The driver is believed to have attempted to reverse the car but instead put the automatic gear into drive.

q A pensioner from Surrey being killed as he drove his car into an icy cold river after becoming disorientated in thick fog.

q An 85-year-old woman driving her car through the window of a garage show room after becoming lost on a long drive.

q A disabled pensioner killing a two-year-old and ploughing into a group of children, after losing control of her adapted car.

q An elderly driver, 79, dying in a head-on smash after speeding the wrong way down the fast lane of the M48 near Bristol.

An analysis of the skills needed for driving - good eyesight, reasonable hearing, physical strength and agility, mental acuity and excellent reaction times - indicates just why elderly drivers may encounter problems, as they become increasingly frail.

Doctors fear there will be more accidents involving elderly drivers as the number of pensioners increases. Recent figures reveal that of Britain's 32,329,228 driving licence holders, 1,953,965 are over 70, of which 323,588 are 71-75, 167,331 are 76-80, 72,960 are 81-85, 16,893 are 86-90, 1,869 are 91-95, 111 are 96-100, and 3 are over 100.

In the past 10 years the number of drivers over 70 has risen by 400,000 and by 2010 elderly drivers are likely to outnumber those under 60.

The public perception of the elderly driver as a careful motorist has encouraged insurance companies to regard the over 50s as the safest drivers on the road. Many offer incentives to attract the "grey pound". Direct Line Insurance, for instance, which insures more motorists over 50 than anyone else, gives an extra 5 per cent no claims bonus to those who already have the 65 per cent maximum. This age group is seen as more law abiding and less likely to put themselves in dangerous situations, such as driving at night.

But one firm, Norwich Union, believes once a motorist reaches his or her late sixties their claims do begin to climb, although they are usually smaller than those of younger drivers.

Now there are growing signs that other organisations are beginning to endorse the General Medical Council's view that action needs to be taken to weed out motorists unfit to drive.

The Institute Of Advanced Motorists, which runs refresher courses for many of its 7,650 members, believes all motorists should take regular check-ups and not just the old. The British Medical Association, meanwhile, believes drivers should face regular medical tests by an independent body.

Britain may yet be forced into prompt action. The EU wants all drivers over the age of 70 to sit a test every two years.