Our great driving dilemma.

Nobody wants to give up the freedom and independence that comes with having a car but at some point, every older driver and their family is faced with this difficult situation. But as Virginia Millen discovers, with the right advice, the transition can be made easier.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, by 2036 there will be more  than three times the number of people aged over 85 in Australia than there is now. Looking 20 years on from that, one in four Australians will be aged 65 and over.

As Australia’s population increases so will the number of older drivers. Australian drivers aged 70 years and over have  one of the highest driver fatality rates per distance travelled. And that’s in spite of the fact that older drivers generally have safe driving habits and often modify their driving patterns to accommodate changes in their abilities.

La Trobe University Department of Occupational Therapy honorary senior lecturer Marilyn Di Stefano says it’s important to remember everyone ages at different rates depending on their genetic disposition, lifestyle habits and general health. But a time may come when driving is no longer a safe option. So if there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the question, at what age should one stop driving?

“We’re dealing with people who are the most variable across a whole range of different characteristics compared to any other age group through the lifespan,” she says.

However, Ms Di Stefano says it’s incredibly important to have regular health checks, including eye checks, and be  aware of the health conditions that may affect driving. These include arthritis, epilepsy, a heart condition, high blood pressure or anxiety.

“The reason for that is we want people to be driving at their optimum. Drivers could be missing things on the road because they haven’t had their eyes checked recently,” she says. “They may have developed diabetes-related complications or glaucoma or cataracts, and they just don’t know that they’re missing out on seeing things.”

Medication can also impair driving, so it’s important that anyone on medication that makes them drowsy or affects their judgement speak to their GP. In November last year compulsory driving tests for licence holders over the age of 85 were removed across Western Australia. But, annual medical examinations for drivers over 80 remain in place. A medical professional will look at a person’s previous driving history and medical history, which includes testing blood pressure and visual acuity. If they suspect a person’s ability to drive has been affected by any of these factors an annual on-road test will be required.

Ms Di Stefano says a contributing factor to the high fatality statistics for this group is that people tend to be more frail when they’re older.

“If you have a similar accident with single drivers and you have a 25-year-old in the same car, same conditions, and then you have a 75 or 80-year-old, same car same conditions, the 25-year-old is going to come outolder drives in wa are increasing better,” she says. “Because they’re more resilient and they’re able to withstand physical injury better than the 80-year-old.”

This highlights the importance of older drivers choosing cars that offer them the greatest safety features, and achieve a high safety rating under the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP).

“There have been quite a few studies done that have highlighted people don’t necessarily purchase vehicles on the basis of safety criteria. It might be more on the basis of cost and size of car. We’re very lucky now that we do have access to vehicles which have high safety ratings because of the ANCAP system,” says Ms Di Stefano.

Know the signs

When older drivers find themselves having difficulty reacting to other drivers’ actions, driving at inappropriate speeds, misinterpreting traffic signals, having difficulty with the glare of oncoming headlights or streetlights or regularly getting lost in familiar surroundings, it’s time to visit a GP to find out what to do next.

RAC Senior Manager Policy and Research Anne Still says these warning signs don’t necessarily mean it’s time to stop driving, but they do need to be taken seriously.

“It’s important not to ignore the warning signs especially since some of these things can be managed or even resolved through medical treatment. Drivers can use visual or hearing aids, for example. Display of these conditions may not necessarily mean that older drivers have to give up their licence but it’s certainly a warning sign that some corrective action might be required,” she says.

Corrective action may not be an option in cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Medical issues that affect cognitive functioning pose the greatest risk to drivers.

It’s predicted that by 2056, one in four Australians over the age of 85 will be diagnosed with dementia. A recent US study examining drivers with dementia found that becoming lost had significant consequences including serious injury and death. Drivers with dementia are often unable to self-assess their ability.

Safety must come first

If a family member or spouse notices these warning signs before the driver does, they need to find a way to broach what is often a very sensitive conversation.

“It is extremely difficult, but they should talk to the person,” says Ms Di Stefano. “What has to be paramount in the minds of family and carers is not just that person’s safety but the community’s safety.”

As well as taking corrective measures, seniors can also modify their driving habits.

“We find that people limit themselves to when and where and (with) whom they drive,” says Ms Di Stefano. “If they know they have to navigate somewhere at night they can make sure they take a passenger who can do the
navigating for them so they can concentrate on driving.”

Plan to stop driving

While retiring from work often represents a significant life change,  being unable to drive can feel like a loss of independence. But Ms Di Stefano says, just as older Australians plan to retire from work as they age, they should also put a plan in place to retire from driving.

“Because of our increased lifespan we can live anywhere between eight to 10 years beyond the age when we have to give up driving,” she says.

Working out what the transport alternatives are before having to give up driving can make a significant difference to a person’s ability to continue to perform daily tasks and stay in touch with their social network.

“The issue in Western Australia is you’ve got a population spread across a very large state. So when people can no longer drive or access transportation via private vehicles, whether it’s the spouse who drives or the family, then you don’t have a lot of public transport unless you live in an urban centre,” says Ms Di Stefano.

The best way to navigate this is to pre-plan. For people downsizing or looking for a sea change, moving to an area that has access to public transport or community buses, or is close to family canmake a huge difference to their ability to get around.

Know your options

a wa older driverCouncil on the Ageing Western Australia chair Bettrine Heathcote says there are alternative options to public transport in WA.

“You can apply for special taxi vouchers by contacting the Department of Local Government and Community, which give you half-priced taxis,” she says. “Or you could set up a neighbourhood car pool.”

Ms Heathcote says there are also local home and community care providers who may have volunteers who pick people up and take them shopping.

“Social isolation is one of the biggest problems as a result of losing your licence,” she says.

Ms Still says it’s important for older people to be supported by their community, family and friends to maintain mobility when they stop driving. “The key thing is that people aren’t simply cut-off from accessing places and services when they stop driving, that there’s some sort of transition there,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to have the conversation early, to make sure that these other options are on the table including knowing about assistance available from various organisations and family and friends.”

Stay safe on the roads

Have your vision checked every one to two years and your hearing checked every three years.

Be aware of any medications that might interfere with your driving and visit your GP regularly for general health checks.

Western Australians can access the Disability Equipment Grant program through the Independent Living Centre WA.

People with a disability can apply for grants to have their vehicle modified.

People over the age of 65 with a Centrelink Pension Concession Card can access the Occupational Therapy Driver Assessment and Driver Training program.

As a rough guide it’s worth getting your car serviced every six months.

Your mechanic should do a safety check during every service, which involves checking your car’s tyres, brakes, lights and steering.

If you have lost confidence driving at night, through busy intersections or on the freeway, restrict driving to places and situations that match your ability and skill level.