A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
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.
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 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  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?