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[NEWS] Road safety firm calls for mandatory eye tests for older drivers

Road safety firm calls for mandatory eye tests for older drivers

driving blurry
Tests show that the eyes of older drivers are slower to adjust to changes in light

Police-backed Older Drivers Forum says our rules are "out of date" amid slipping driver standards

A road safety organisation backed by the police has criticised current eye test requirements for drivers and called for mandatory eye testing once they turn 70 and every three years thereafter. 

Rob Heard, a former traffic police officer and founder of the Older Drivers Forum, a not-for-profit organisation run by Hampshire Constabulary Road Safety Team, says the current requirements for elderly drivers are inadequate. 

“We’re one of the worst countries in Europe,” he said. “There are only two times in a driver’s career when their eyesight must be tested: the driving test and when a police officer tells them to read a licence plate at 20 metres. Compared with other countries where regular eye assessments are mandatory, our rules are out of date.” 

Heard’s comments follow news that a senior coroner presiding over a case involving a 95-year-old motorist who knocked down and killed a mobility scooter user on a pedestrian crossing has written to the secretary of state for transport and the head of the DVLA concerned about the lack of limits and assessments on elderly drivers. 

In her prevention of future deaths report, coroner Penelope Schofield highlighted the fact that although drivers over 70 must apply for a new licence every three years, they are not required to undergo a medical check to establish their fitness to drive. 

Instead, they are allowed to self-declare their state of health. This, wrote Schofield, raised the possibility that should no checks be carried out, “a driver may be oblivious to their enduring medical condition and this may pose a serious risk to other road users”. 

Responding to the coroner’s letter, the Department for Transport said: “It is the law that all drivers must ensure that they are medically fit to drive at all times and notify the DVLA of the onset or worsening of a medical condition that could affect this. We have some of the safest roads in the world and we keep licensing standards up to date to make sure that is maintained.” 

Of the 41.5 million people who hold a full driving licence in the UK, 6.25 million (15%) are older than 70. Their number is increasing at the rate of 250,000 each year. While their health varies widely, one condition they are all likely to share is failing eyesight.

“It’s a huge issue,” said Heard, who was inspired to found the Older Drivers Forum after attending a fatal head-on collision caused by a 92-year-old driver. “As we age, our distance and peripheral vision deteriorate. The ability of our eyes to quickly react to changing light levels also declines. 

For example, a 15-year-old’s eyes take around two seconds to adjust to the bright lights of an oncoming car, but a 65-year-old’s around nine.” 

Although the average 70-year-old driver is no more likely to have an accident than a younger driver, one aged over 85 is four times more likely to be the cause of a crash than the innocent victim of one. Between the ages of 70 and 80, drivers are statistically safe but make more expensive motor insurance claims. 

This explains why from the age of 70, their insurance premiums begin to rise steeply. For example, a 62-year-old motorist living in Surrey can expect to pay around £300 to insure a Volkswagen Golf, but it’s around £550 for their 70-year-old equivalent. 

The vast majority of crashes involving older drivers are right of way violations. Especially dangerous are manoeuvres involving crossing fast-moving traffic, where the older driver is disadvantaged by their slow reaction times, poor neck mobility and deteriorating peripheral vision.

For older motorists who are concerned about their standard of driving, there are over 20 Driving Mobility centres offering advice and driving assessments. Drivers can self-refer or be referred by their GP or the DVLA. 

“A quarter of referrals come from the DVLA,” said Edward Trewhella, CEO of Driving Mobility. “Regarding older drivers, an increasing number are referred by those police forces which offer assessment as an alternative to prosecution.” 

Last year, the centres assessed 20,000 drivers of all ages, around one-third of them older than 70. The number of drivers suffering dementia increased by a third between 2018 and 2020 – from 2700 to 3600. In 2020, 27% of all drivers the centres assessed were declared unsafe to drive and their licences revoked. 

Despite these figures, Heard is keen to play down the risks posed by older drivers: “We all age differently. There are drivers in their nineties who are perfectly capable of driving competently. The worst mistake they can make is to be complacent about their condition. Motorists need to know when is the right time to retire from driving or seek help to continue doing so.”

What does the law say?

There’s no age limit to driving but you must reapply for your driving licence when you reach 70 and every three years thereafter and declare that you can read a numberplate at 20 metres with or without glasses. 

You must inform the DVLA about certain medical conditions you may be suffering or face a fine of £1000. 

If your doctor believes your ability to drive is impaired, they must tell you they intend to inform the DVLA, which will arrange to have you assessed. 

If you are considered unsafe to drive, your licence will be revoked.

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