Deciding what age is too old to drive is an emotionally charged issue for many families, but it’s hoped a new online test will revolutionise the process.
- UQ researchers are developing an online driving test to help assess the reaction times of dementia patients
- NSW is the only state with compulsory practical tests for elderly drivers to renew their licence
- With an ageing population, more senior drivers face the prospect of losing their ability to drive
For drivers aged 75 and older, in some Australian states, a GP must complete a medical assessment to determine whether they are safe to drive.
However, there is no standardised diagnostic tool for GPs.
The decision is often made within a 15-minute appointment — sometimes after “doctor shopping” — with the life-altering outcome potentially impacting the senior’s independence or, in some cases, endangering the lives of others.
A crash on the Gold Coast last week left a five-year-old girl with serious head injuries and a pedestrian injured when a car, with an 87-year-old behind the wheel, mounted the kerb in reverse.
In 2018, six-year-old Indie Armstrong died on the Sunshine Coast after a car driven by an 86-year-old reversed into her family at a shopping centre.
Ipswich GP and University of Queensland emeritus professor Geoff Mitchell said doctors relied on “blunt instruments” like basic memory tests when signing off on people’s fitness to hold a driver’s licence.
“There is a real dilemma of determining when that line has been crossed,” he said.
“[A memory test is] good at picking out really severely unwell people, but it’s not very good at testing judgement.
“You have to make a call based on their physical appearance — how quickly they walk into the surgery — and how sharp they are.”
Testing reaction time
With the proportion of Australians over 65 expected to increase from 16 to 23 per cent by 2066, more seniors will face the prospect of losing their driving ability.
While an estimated 472,000 Australians currently live with dementia, Dr Mitchell says many older drivers fall into a grey area where, despite trouble with memory and judgement, they are still capable of controlling a vehicle.
That’s where the Navigating Fitness to Drive program comes in.
The program, developed at the University of Queensland, uses dashcam videos of real-life situations to assess the reaction times of people with dementia.
The video test measures how quickly drivers respond to potentially dangerous driving scenarios.
It is similar to the online Hazard Perception Test already in place for new drivers in some states.
If a driver’s reaction times are too long, it would provide tangible evidence for GPs to make a recommendation against having a driver’s licence.
Dr Mitchell acknowledged the test would not make the process of taking away a person’s ability to drive any easier.
“It is very, very difficult and I have personal experience with this with my father,” he said.
What are the rules for older drivers?
So, what are the requirements for older drivers, and how do the rules vary in different states?
Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and the Northern Territory are the only jurisdictions that do not mandate medical checks for drivers, regardless of age.
Although, SA drivers from age 75 are mailed an annual self-assessment to evaluate their ability to drive safely.
New South Wales and the ACT require drivers over 75 to get an annual fitness-to-drive approval from a doctor, while in Western Australia, this commences from the age of 80.
In Queensland, drivers over 75 need to carry a GP-signed Medical Certificate for Motor Vehicle Driver Form, which remains valid for one year.
Regardless of age, both doctors and drivers are obligated to report medical conditions that can impact a person’s ability to drive, including dementia, stroke, seizures, epilepsy, vision problems, heart disease and some psychiatric and sleep disorders.
Health professionals can also impose conditions restricting people’s ability to drive on highways, at night, or outside a 10-kilometre radius of their home.
A practical driving test is not compulsory, but GPs can make it a requirement.
NSW is the only state where drivers over 85 must take a practical driving test every two years to keep their unrestricted licence.
At a Queensland road safety roundtable this year, a refresher road rules quiz was proposed as part of the licence renewal process for older drivers, but the government was adamant that practical tests were not on the cards.
“Research shows that additional testing of existing licence holders does not provide an accurate assessment of a person’s driving behaviour in a ‘non-test’ driving environment,” said a Transport and Main Roads Queensland spokesperson.
Tasmania and WA previously enforced practical tests, however, both scrapped the requirement, citing human rights concerns.
Transport WA said the test had been based on “misconceptions or stereotypes, and was potentially discriminatory”.
“Research into driver behaviour indicates senior drivers do not pose an unacceptable risk to either themselves or other road users,” a Transport WA spokesperson said.
Concerns about an older motorist can be reported to the police, the state transport department or a doctor.
Many ‘very healthy’ older drivers
UQ psychology professor Nancy Pachana says age does not equate to a poorer driving standard.
She says healthy, older motorists have the advantage of their experience, making them “among the safest drivers”.
Dr Mitchell said it was not a feasible long-term solution to impose mandatory practical tests on each licence renewal.
“There are a huge number of very healthy older people whose driving is not going to become a problem for many, many years,” Dr Mitchell said.
“For those people, you are not going to get value for money.”
He said it was important for families to have sensitive conversations with their older loved ones about their driving.
“You don’t just drop it on them,” Dr Mitchell said.
“Get them thinking about it so that, when the day comes, it’s not coming completely out of the blue.”