Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

driving change

In November 2015, I launched an online petition through Change.org calling for the introduction of compulsory age-appropriate retesting every three years once a driver turns 70. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, the petition generated much debate through widespread broadcast, print and online media coverage and went on to receive over 200,000 UK signatures.

Knowing that media attention and signatures alone wouldn’t drive change, I approached the then Secretary of State for Transport for support through the petition and appeared on the Daily Politics show to address MPs directly. On air both two MPs offered their support in taking the petition to the right people at Westminster, but subsequently retracted stating that I would need to raise the issue with my local MP, Harriet Harman (you might be surprised to know that this is the only way you can really get an audience with the Commons).

It took quite some time for me to get there, but two weeks ago I went to Westminster to meet with a member of her team, and on Friday last week I received a message of support from Mrs Harman herself.

I suppose a part of me had given up on making any progress. I allowed myself to grow disappointed and disillusioned and I moved on to other things. But something kept pulling me back to the issue in hand. I get emails and social media messages from strangers every time another death is caused by an elderly driver. And just this week I read the tragic news about a little girl called Poppy-Arabella who was killed by a 72-year-old driver who shouldn’t have been on the road.

The Sutton Coldfield pensioner was sentenced to four years in prison after knocking down and killing the three-year-old girl as she walked over a pedestrian crossing last summer.

The police investigation found that the driver had been told just weeks before that his vision was no longer good enough for him to drive, even with his glasses on. When he hit Poppy-Arabella he was not wearing glasses and told officers he had not seen the red light or the crossing itself. This man should not have been driving that day as, quite simply, his vision was severely impaired. The consequences of his decision to get behind the wheel despite this have been catastrophic. 

But what really struck me in the police statement was that this man, as well as being sentenced to four years in prison, was also disqualified from driving for five years from the date of his release. I asked myself, How is his eyesight going to improve sufficiently over the next nine years for him to be allowed to get behind a wheel again? And why should he even be allowed? 

This, of course, could be deemed a very reactive response – a knee-jerk to a clearly emotionally rousing story. But when you’ve heard as many as I have, you may start to see a pattern: the law as it currently stands is almost entirely in favour of keeping older drivers on the road for as long as long as possible at almost any cost – even human life.

This is a much longer post that I would usually publish, but I really want people to understand the bigger picture and start to appreciate how much worse things could get if current – and potential – policy isn’t better scrutinised. I urge you to read on and share this blog post with anyone you believe can help make a difference before it’s too late.

My story 

I have a personal history that made me grow to care deeply about this issue. In 2012 my wife, Desreen Brooks, was struck and killed by a pensioner who mistook the accelerator for the break whilst driving in his car at night. As a result, the 82-year-old man was travelling at 54 miles per hour in a 20-zone when his vehicle hit Desreen. She and I were walking on the West End Lane pavement in West Hampstead with our two-year-old son, Jackson, at the time she was killed.

My immediate reaction was not to point blame at older drivers as a whole or seek to change the law simply because of what had happened in the isolated, yet tragic, incident that took my wife’s life. Instead, I attempted to seek a positive outcome by channelling my own grief into a blog and a book that would ultimately go on to help hundreds of thousands of people suffering from the loss of a loved one.

It was during the court case against the driver, however, when I took it upon myself to campaign for change. The judge who sentenced the man who killed my wife said; ‘An elderly driver who knows, or should acknowledge, that he or she is losing his or her faculties is no less a danger than a drunken driver who knows the same.’

After I left the court room that day, I published a blog post encouraging those who knew a friend or relative who they believed were no longer safe to drive, to speak out. The post was read and shared by hundreds of thousands of people and republished by several newspapers and other media outlets. Hundreds of people wrote to me in support of my message, with many explaining that they had tried to stop someone they believed unsafe to drive but were left powerless. In many instance they had warned the driver’s GP or reported them to the DVLA but no avail. It was these shared stories that ultimately made me decide to take action.

Current licensing status for older drivers 

Currently, the over-70s can renew their licence every three years by filling in a self assessment form. No mandatory checks are made on their driving skills, reactions, eyesight or hearing at any point in time – even into much older age.

Just weeks after the 82-year-older driver struck and killed my wife, his doctor recommended that he start driving again as soon as possible. That’s because once a person has passed their driving test, their decision to carry on into old age is mostly self-regulated. For example, those suffering heart rhythm problems have to inform the DVLA of their condition, but those who suffer heart attacks do not. Those who have suffered a stroke don’t necessarily need to tell the DVLA, either.

In fact, a relative of mine who struggled to walk as a result of a stroke, was assessed by a representative from a stroke charity – which simply involved driving round the block – and told he was fine to drive. Within weeks he had crashed into his own wall.

My petition 

My intention with the petition was, of course, ultimately to drive change. Firstly, though, I needed to provoke conversation and debate. I admit that I have no expertise in the fields of medicine or transport and that the wording of my petition was deliberately as arbitrary as the current regulations imposed on drivers once they reach 70.

Under the current DVLA system, drivers have to renew their licence every three years. This system was introduced in 1976 when the Minister at the time said: ‘…the accident rate above the age [70] does considerably increase. Also, the medical profession have advised that that is the age which our faculties begin to dimmer and therefore our ability to drive should be looked at again’ (see Older Drivers Briefing Paper #SN409, 11 January 2017).

The result of this regulation today is largely self regulatory system. Every three years, a driver over the age of 70 submits a licence renewal application, in which they must state that they are fit to drive based broadly on their state of health and eyesight.

While I have no evidence to indicate the number of older drivers who don’t admit to conditions that may affect their ability to continue to drive safely, there is a study from Canada that suggests under-reporting of medical conditions associated with increased crash risk.

The province of Quebec has a substantial database of medical conditions, as it provides motor insurance and healthcare for its residents, and is starting to match health and crash data.

One paper concludes that the majority of drivers over the age of 70 have a medical condition associated with increased crash risk. Reporting by the individual driver of such medical conditions is evidently inefficient. For example, driver self-declarations of cardiac problems were just over 5% whereas the declaration by physicians was about 65%.

At a similar level, in the UK the Police have noted that when driving assessments are offered as an alternative to prosecution, nearly 70% of those assessed require eyesight correction.

These findings were included in a recent report by the Older Drivers Task Force entitled ‘Supporting Safe Driving into Old Age’. This task force set out with just one purpose: to enable older drivers to drive safely for longer. So, despite the report stating that ‘some older drivers – possibly those in the over 80 group – may be disproportionately involved in crashes leading to very serious third party injury,’ and despite the report also stating that ‘self-declaration of medical conditions has been shown clearly in one study not to be reliable,’ none of the reports seven key recommendations aim to effect any true change in this area. To put it bluntly, keeping older drivers on the road for longer is on the agenda, but keeping others safe is not.

The report goes on to make the recommendation of raising the mandatory age of self declaration from 70 to 75 as something that the task force would deem ‘reasonable’. It explains that this ‘would reduce administrative costs and burdens and be welcomed by older drivers’ (one can only assume that ‘welcomed’ is shorthand for ‘popular amongst a demographic who bother to go out and vote’).

What truly worries me about this, though, is that this report has been used as the basis of a House of Commons briefing paper. This means that its recommendations have been discussed within Parliament and could well be on their way to becoming policy – and no one is challenging them. No one, as far as I can see, is saying, Well what about the drivers that the report says ‘may be disproportionately involved in crashes leading to very serious third party injury’? There’s no scrutiny and there really must be otherwise are just going to get worse – the report itself explains that the number of drivers over the age of 85 will double to one million by 2025.

The report also suggests that the DVLA begins to seek evidence of a recent eyesight test, but I don’t believe these recommendations do nearly enough to help elderly drivers understand at what point they may longer be fit to drive. Without regulation there is simply too much risk.

Where do we go from here? 

Much debate has continued since I launched the Change.org petition in November 2015 and there has been some action as seen through the National Older Driver Strategy by the Older Drivers Task Force. I believe it now makes sense to be pragmatic and work to effect change within the framework of the 2016 strategy.

The 2016 report/strategy suggests several steps to help keep older people driving safely for longer, but it does little to help prevent those drivers putting others at risk.

I believe this needs challenging in line with both the support the petition has received, the report’s largely dismissed impact of inefficient self regulation (excluding the eye health recommendation), the apparent bias of the strategy towards supporting driver longevity over other people’s safety, and the personal stories of tragedy and danger that go beyond statistics.

Understandably, the report and policy recommendations are intended to be ‘proportionate’ and aim not to create negative social and psychological consequences by depriving the elderly of their ability to drive. Exclusion, as documented widely through my interviews and media features, however, was never my intention. The right of an older person to drive is not in question. What I continue to push for is need for them to prove that they are able to drive safely into old age. This, I believe, continues to be ignored.

Family and friends carry the burden of persuading those they believe present a risk to stop driving. This can often damage relationships. One supporter told me she took her 72-year-old mother to a test centre to highlight the fact she would be a danger if she continued driving. She told me: ‘As a result, she doesn’t drive any more. But she also doesn’t speak to me much.’

The Older Drivers Task Force chose to make recommendations that would ‘nudge rather than regulate where possible,’ but with no real reason given. I believe that, somehow, this issue needs to shift from personal to policy. No one wants to be the cause of a death. No one wants to fall out. No one objects to their car having to pass an annual MOT to keep them safe. So why wouldn’t they be happy to do the same?

10 comments on “driving change

  1. Shane Hopkins
    March 21, 2017

    While your quest for more restrictive laws for older drivers seems nobel. I can’t help but wonder if you are trying to fix a symptom of a larger problem. You mentioned the man that recently struck a young girl and was sentenced to 4 years in prison. Your post states that the man was told just prior to this accident that he was not fit to be behind the wheel due to his vision being to poor WITH glasses. This man obviously did not care or could not comprehend for himself that he was a danger to anyone, heck he didn’t even bother to wear the glasses while driving. This is key to understanding his mindset. His independence was being challenged and people will hold on to their own independance like nothing else. My question is if there were more strict laws and policies in place, would this man have cared? Would he not be driving anyway?They told him he was not fit to drive? He drove. The problem here is society, family, the culture, our neighbors, a stranger passing by, all of these things should be protecting us from dangers and such disasters. When we get lazy because we don’t want to get involved or are too busy with other more important things, we tend to rely on the government to take care of societies problems with more laws, more policies, which leads to less rights, less freedom, more bureaucracy, more costs, resulting in a weaker society as a whole. Some old folks have no family to watch over them, but they have neighbors, mechanics, store clerks, landlords, friends, all who should be watching out for one another. None of which bothered to take this man’s keys away and offer him a ride. There is something to be said for appropriate testing and a qualified diagnosis to determine dangerous medical conditions but let’s be real, when Uncle Richard starts coming home with cat food instead of tuna and reading the newspaper from a 3 ft distance long before he’s killing people and someone should be noticing. We should be raising awareness within communities and families to make genuine efforts to take care of each other, especially our elders, disabled, underprivileged, mentally ill, addicted etc. We need to tread lightly when we find ourselves demanding that the government make decisions for those who we feel cannot make decisions for themselves because they will do so by increasing the restriction of freedoms for everyone, and by invading the privacy all. We don’t need it, let’s get off our asses and visit uncle Richard, take his keys, sell his car, buy him an iphone, and turn him on to Uber. We might find ourselves liking the guy after all, saving some lives in the process, and maintaining our freedom from government. In my country travel for non commercial reasons is not a privilege, it is a god given right as included in the United States constitution. Any laws or restrictions made after the fact by fraudulent state corporation entities are null and void as far as I’m concerned (US Supreme Court certainly agrees with me). I do not have license, do not register my vehicle, and have been not doing all of this for 15 years. I carry auto insurance through a sovereign citizen organization which allows me to obtain a policy without surrendering myself and my property to the state run corporations via vehicle licensing and registration processes. For those who think I’m a tax dodger, I think the 1.2 million I have contributed in state, federal, and Social Security taxes thus far should cover me on my share of infrastructure development and maintenance.

  2. KT O'Malley
    March 22, 2017

    I completely agree that this re-testing of older drivers should become mandatory. Isn’t it an accepted fact we become less able and our abilities (such as sight and response actions) become weaker as we age significantly. This would be a very sensible measure to protect everyone including the older driver, from accidents which result from age related deterioration such as failing eyesight or mental agility. I understand the desire and importance of elderly people to maintain their independence and for many this is achieved through continued motoring but it should not be at any cost. As the article states, retesting is not for the purposes of taking away driving rights, it is to ensure that the elderly person who wishes to continue driving is safe to do so.
    I’m so sorry for your loss Ben and I’m sad for you that you have to live with it everyday. I’m thankful for your response to what happened to you and I think if you keep going with the petition for retesting it will lead to a significant positive difference to many people in the future.

  3. Shelley Sawers
    March 22, 2017

    Its a dreadful business, we had to have a family intervention to confront my mother in law with a whole family decision that from that day forth she was no longer going to drive. There was anger, tears, disbelief. We sent her home in a taxi, and put the car up for sale the next day. She had been promised for years she would never drive beyond what was safe, but despite escalating scrapes and bumps, and one mild ‘hit and run’ she was refusing to stop. It was only a matter of time before the next bump was going to be a person. The pressure MUST be taken of families, as many simply fail. How in the end to you physically stop someone driving if they are determined to carry on. Families HAVE to have the law behind us. The consequences are senselessly tragic

  4. Marie-Ann Roberts
    March 25, 2017

    Hi Ben,
    My sister Lisa and I have been intending to contact you for a considerable time, as our family’s situation shares some similarities with yours. On 24 December 2015, my mother and I were sitting in the Costa Coffee in Westerham. At just before 10:30 am, David Lord, ploughed his 3.5 litre Audi A4 Sport into the cafe, killing mum instantly, and injuring my godmother who was with us at the time.
    I hope that it is alright to make contact with you in this way. We have been following your campaign with great interest, and believe it to be a positive and well balanced response to a terrible tragedy. We would like to help, as we feel very strongly that action needs to be taken to reduce the dangers posed by some of the elderly drivers on our roads.
    I have chosen to send you this message today because the court case against Mr Lord concluded this Thursday. He received a 22 month suspended sentence, a five year driving ban, and costs of £1500. We are not satisfied with this, but would like to take some positive steps towards improving road safety, and feel that this is an appropriate way of honouring Mum’s memory.
    Best wishes,
    Marie-Ann Roberts & Lisa Deakin

    • Life as a Widower
      March 25, 2017

      Thanks so much for getting in touch. I knew exactly who you were three words into you second sentence. Let’s make some time to talk. If you send me an email address I’ll write back properly. I thought about your story a lot and I’m really touched you made contact.

      • Marie-Ann Roberts
        March 25, 2017

        Wow, we weren’t expecting to hear from you so soon! My Twitter is @MadBizNez . If you wouldn’t mind following me, I will DM you with my email addy.

      • Life as a Widower
        March 25, 2017

        Perfect

  5. Robert Wattera
    April 5, 2017

    My sincere condolences to you Benjamin after such a tragedy!
    I know of two similar incidents within a few miles of my home but fortunately no one lost a life although one woman was seriously injured.
    I didn’t realise that the ludicrous situation of self assessment was used to determine fitness to drive.
    I have signed your petition but my reservations about it are that some people I know will have difficulty in paying for retesting.
    We pay a lot for using a car especially in rural areas.
    I think that an independent nurse or doctor with access to an older person’s medical history should prioritise people by means of reaction tests etc. to determine who needs a complete driving retest.
    P.S. also all PSV and HGV drivers etc. should be tested for Obstructive Sleep Apnaea. This can cause drivers to fall asleep at the wheel without them even realising that they are abnormally tired or even know that they suffer from this condition and can be treated to avoid danger to themselves and others.
    I suffer from a mild version of this and have to keep DVLA informed and normally visit a specialist medical professional once a year to re-assess my condition.
    When I reach 70, i will have my reactions etc. checked before continuing to drive.

    We do need stronger laws to remove dangerous drivers of any type from our roads.

    Robert

    • Fran Benson
      November 9, 2017

      Hi Robert, I’m a journalist writing about the topic of elderly driver safety in light of last week’s awful case of an elderly driver killing two women as well as all these other cases. I’d like to talk to you if possible about the incidents you mention above. Could you contact me on twitter on @journalistfran ? Thank you. Fran

  6. H
    April 24, 2017

    My father refused to give up driving even though he had MSA, a neurological condition. My mother refused to stop him driving.

    He was stopped by the police on three occasions as they thought he was drunk.

    I offered to find a car insurance quote online for the car. It was a good deal, however, I only insured my mother to drive. My father never forgave me and accused me of taking away his licence. He thought he should be insured to drive in an emergency. He was more likely to be the cause of an emergency. He was a stubborn old fool. I can’t believe my mother allowed him to drive her around for so long when he bumped and scraped the car. Old people are too proud to admit they can no longer drive. They should not be allowed to sign a piece of paper every 3 years after the age of 70. They should prove they are competent to drive.

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