South Australia tightens the licence requirements for elderly drivers
An article in Adelaide’s The Advertiser on September 4, 2013, written by Police Reporter Ben Hyde, stimulated much debate all-day on talk-back radio station 5AA.
South Australian Motorists over the age of 70 must pass an annual medical and eyesight examination, and receive a certificate of fitness to drive. Of particular concern to the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure (DPTI) of the SA government, are medical conditions that might adversely affect competence to drive safely.
Examples include diminished visual acuity, sleep disorders, attention deficit disorder and other psychiatric problems, degenerative neurological disorders e.g. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, epilepsy, diabetes, drug dependency, and heart disease.
All drivers, whatever their age, have a duty to report any condition that might affect their fitness to drive. Because of the increased incidence of medical disorders with age, an annual medical examination is appropriate for those over 70.
The New Certificate of Fitness Assessment Form
There has been a concern with the standard of medical information provided by some doctors completing the current assessment forms. This has prompted, according to the Road Safety Minister Michael O’Brien, the design of a more detailed document with a comprehensive patient questionnaire and examination report, to be completed by the driver and the medical examiner.
The new form complies with national guidelines in assessing fitness to drive. It is not aimed at increasing driver suspensions which have increased from 1416 in 2010/11, to 1541 in 2011/12, and now in 2012/13 to 2016, a jump of 30%. There are 117,000 licence holders in South Australia who are 70 or older.
In addition to those loosing their licence, an extra 816 drivers had restrictions placed on their licence. This was up from 645 in 2011/12 and 381 in 2010/11. This rapid increase is in part due to ageing of the population, but may also be a function of improved reporting.
The intention of the government is to reduce the high incidence of over 70-year-old drivers involved in fatal collisions. This year 17 of 74 road deaths have been in this age group. This statistic does not differentiate between the age group of the drivers mostly responsible for the accident.
By drawing attention to driving competency from medical causes, and placing restrictions when appropriate, the measures may in fact prolong driving longevity for the elderly.
The Victorian Approach
This article by Judith Charlton in the Herald Sun on July 18, 2013 puts the entirely different perspective of the Victorian State government to mandatory licence testing of older drivers. Annual medical examinations do not alter the road toll. Although older drivers may have more medical issues, their vision and hearing be less acute, and their reflexes slower, they are more likely to change their driving habits, and to drive within their limitations.
They are less likely to speed, more likely to be cautious. They are less likely to weave in and out of traffic, cutting into the path of other cars. They often stop driving at night, and avoid peak hour city traffic. They often pick less frequented roads. Many just use their car to do the shopping, to attend church, entertainment and sporting fixtures, and to visit friends. They are less likely to engage in such hazardous activities as talking on a mobile phone, or texting messages. They are mostly experienced drivers with good driving records.
Sure they may be annoyingly slow for impatient drivers behind them. They may miss opportunities to enter and leave streams of traffic. Because of this they are often honked impatiently and sometimes subject to road rage. A little more consideration would help prevent them from becoming flustered. Because of their frailty they are more likely to be severely injured in motor vehicle accidents.
Victoria claims the lowest older driver (over75) crash rate per number of licenses issued, according to an Australian study, quoted by Associate Professor Judith Charlton. She is an associate director of the Monash University Accident Research Centre, and has been a lead researcher in an Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand study of more than 1000 drivers over 75.
Living in South Australia, an annual medical examination was necessary when he turned 70. This has not been onerous. He advised the Transport Department of health issues when they arose. The first was an irregularity of his heart rate. Later he needed to wear glasses when driving.
Subsequently, he developed sleep apnoea, but this was a problem controlled by a CPAP machine, or a dental splint at night. His doctor had no hesitation in recommending his licence be approved each year. In 2002 he was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease, but the symptoms were not severe, and medication helped. More recently he developed an oesophageal diverticulum (pouch) causing regurgitation of undigested food especially at night when lying flat.
With such disturbed sleep he became increasingly sleepy during the day to the point that Mrs Pop-Star stopped him from driving for longer distances, for fear of him sleeping at the wheel, and causing an accident. Pop-Star did not mind at all being chauffeured by his dear wife.
When his next medical examination fell due, his doctor was unsure whether she should again endorse his licence. For this reason she requested a driving test. Pop-Star had no difficulty in passing this test easily , and has since increased his driving without problem.
There are some elderly who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge when they are no longer safe to be driving. For this reason Pop-Star regards compulsory medical examinations as appropriate. In his opinion however it is not fair to place all responsibility on either doctors’ reports, or even on practical driving tests. Driving is a privilege, not a right. It is important for the elderly to listen to their family, and be proactive in restricting their own driving when necessary. From his own experience, cessation of driving need not be permanent. Driving with restrictions may be a welcome alternative.
The day will come when he can no longer drive. Pop-Star, faced with this possibility, tries to be positive about the prospect. Being a passenger can be enjoyable, observing the scenery, back-seat driving, and getting to talk to his wife! To his disgrace he often tends to snooze, or occasionally use his great little smart phone for all sorts of uses, from Googling to answer his wife’s questions, to checking the stock-market, and playing chess. With less car expenses, occasional taxi rides is an affordable alternative. Staying at home has its advantages too.