Radio National had a fascinating talk-back session yesterday on older drivers (audio download here; no transcript). This is a pressing issue because of the ageing of the Australian population – by around 2040 a quarter of the population is projected to be aged over 65 years.

However the good news is that elderly drivers, including those over 85, are just as safe as other age cohorts. In fact in Victoria there is no compulsory age-related retesting of drivers for this reason.  It seems older drivers actively self-regulate as they feel their capability diminish – they drive less, drive shorter trips, drive slower and in particular avoid driving at night or in wet conditions.

They also tend to give up voluntarily when they no longer feel comfortable driving, rather than be forced off the road by doctor’s orders or, in some States, by compulsory testing. Being able to continue driving is very important for older drivers. For one thing it seems they are more at risk as pedestrians than as drivers. For another, rates of depression are higher for older persons who can no longer drive.

Yet the program indicated the good performance of older drivers is despite some having disabilities that would disqualify them from driving if detected by the licensing authorities. One study found that 17% have inadequate vision for driving and 7% have early stage dementia. Diagnosis of dementia is especially important because some drivers will not or cannot acknowledge their disability.

An issue that struck me is the plight of widows. There are many women whose late husbands did all the driving during their marriage. They have to develop the skills and confidence for more extensive driving at an advanced age. Some have never previously learned to drive.

A key recommendation for older drivers is to drive a vehicle that has high levels of both active and passive safety. Elderly people should also think about living in a location where they can access destinations without a car should they no longer be able to drive.

(Photo by Bruce Dickson)