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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?

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tell them

The eighty-five-year-old driver who killed my wife, Desreen, was jailed today for eighteen months for causing her death by dangerous driving. He was also banned from driving for life. I suspect he, his family and friends are feeling really quite dreadful right now, and, for what it’s worth, mine and I aren’t exactly celebrating either.

You see, I’ve had time to think since attending the trial and I’ve realised that you can punish a crime but you can’t transfer pain. Any suffering caused to the defendant as a result of his sentencing could in no way take away mine. I’ve since learned that, having suffered so much myself, I genuinely wish no hurt on any other person and I never wished a prison sentence on the driver, either.

In fact, I wasn’t even going to mention the sentencing on my blog at all. But then I reminded myself that justice for Desreen is best served not by a prison sentence but by trying to prevent similar unnecessary deaths from happening again in future. I keep hearing people say that they know someone who should probably give up driving but that they don’t know how to raise the issue with them. Well maybe I can help with that.

Tell them that the judge who sentenced the driver today 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.’

Tell them that the judge also explained that the defendant’s ‘lifetime of blameless driving is of no comfort to the Brooks-Dutton family,’ (and I assure you it really isn’t).

Tell them that the detective sergeant in charge of the prosecution said, ‘It is important for motorists to regularly monitor their driver behaviour and that of their elderly relatives to ensure that the roads are safe for all road users.’

Tell them that the once ‘blameless’ elderly driver suffered pedal confusion, which caused his car to be travelling at an average of fifty-four miles per hour in a twenty zone when he struck and killed my wife.

Tell them that the impact of this pedal confusion caused one of her shoes to fly off her feet as his speeding car hit her on the pavement where she was walking blamelessly with our then two-year-old son and me. Tell them that I had to keep looking at that shoe in the street on the night of her death and in photographs over the course of the subsequent trial.

Tell them that this is the last photo ever taken of my wife with our son together. Tell them that the paramedics on the scene later that evening had to cut off the jumper she is pictured wearing in order to be able to perform CPR on the pavement where she lay dying.

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Tell them that what happened was almost even more catastrophic and that the car that killed my wife almost killed our son too. Tell them that the collision investigator found a piece of the pushchair he is pictured in here in the street after the car skimmed it before mowing down his mother.

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Tell them that the day after my wife was killed my son was upset that he couldn’t find his scooter. Tell them that’s because his scooter was found in the wreckage too.

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Tell them that every time I look at my favourite picture of my wife and me together I get upset as I imagine how I lost the hat I am pictured wearing on the night of her death. Tell them that I’ve concluded that I must have inadvertently thrown it into the street as I pulled at my own hair through fear that she was going to die.

Ben & Des

Tell them they won’t be the only people who have to deal with the consequences of any potential injury or fatality that they might cause. Tell them the impact will be felt by more people than they can imagine including their own family and friends.

Tell them that the two-year-old boy who lost his mummy is now four and is still so angry and upset that she can’t come back. Tell them that he has suffered immeasurably from the trauma of that night. Show them this picture and tell them that this is him pictured with his beautiful mummy on his second birthday – the last one they would ever spend together.

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Tell them that at thirty-one years old I was the happiest man alive when I married the love of my life. Tell them that I was utterly bereft when I lost her at thirty-three. Tell them I’m thirty-five now and depressed. Tell them that I put a good face on but that the truth is that things haven’t really got much easier. Tell them from me how hard it is to be a bereaved single parent.

Tell them that once disaster strikes no wishing the tables could be turned will help. Tell them that wanting to switch places with the young person killed will make no difference to those who survive.

Tell them that you understand that they may want to stay mobile but remind them of what’s at risk.

Tell them any of these things you like; print this blog post off, email it on, share it online and let it speak for itself.

Tell me you’ll help prevent this happening again, though.

Just tell me that so that one day I can tell my son that his mother’s death wasn’t completely in vain.

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dangerous driving

My wife was killed twenty-five months ago today, and since that day, despite the fact that I have unashamedly spoken out about my grief, I have remained respectfully tight-lipped about what I believed to be its cause. Well, this afternoon an elderly gentlemen was charged with causing her death by dangerous driving. What follows is my statement and, with respect, it is all I wish to say on the matter for now. 

What happened on 10 November 2012 was no doubt a tragedy for all parties involved and no result from the subsequent trial could ever possibly have remedied the pain felt by its many victims. Between us all we have suffered the loss of family; physical and mental injury; the demise of health; the pain and confusion of grief; and the consequences, one would assume, of feelings of guilt.

However, I can only speak with absolutely confidence of the way my family and I have felt over the past two years.

The process and timescale of this trial, I believe, were lengthened and made more complex and painful by the sheer number of obstacles placed in the way of the prosecution. It is my personal view that this would have all been over sooner had such obstructions been avoided.

I, of course, have no doubt that the defendant suffered – and is indeed still suffering – as a consequence of his undoubtedly unanticipated actions. That said, in my view, and judging by the degree of decency with which I was raised, at no time have we – my family and I – been shown any true signs of remorse or consideration through the defendant’s approach to this trial.

Perhaps remorse will follow, perhaps it won’t. For now, though, my family’s priority is to move past the damage caused, and to continue to do everything we can to support one another.

We especially intend to do our utmost to minimise the anguish and confusion suffered by my little boy, a four-year-old child who lost his mother through an act of dangerous driving when he had only just turned two.

I can wholeheartedly say that I can forgive an accident that happened that night in November 2012. Right now, however, I’m finding it very difficult to imagine how I’ll ever forget the lengths that I believe have been taken to try to avoid this case being heard in a timely and appropriate fashion. A case that could perhaps (in my mind at least) have concluded so much sooner and with so much more compassion, had it been handled more sensitively and with even the slightest degree of contrition.

With that very sentiment in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the many thousands of people who have indeed shown my family and me compassion, as well as sympathy, empathy and seemingly boundless support.

I don’t wish to spend the rest of my days shouldering the burden that can come with bitterness and anger. Instead I offer my heart to all of those who may be suffering in a similar way to my family, my friends and myself.

The final thing I wish to say is this: confusion killed my wife. The inability of an 83-year-old driver to distinguish the accelerator from the break of a car that he had been driving for over thirty years is the reason why my son will grow up without his mother.

Perhaps he had never had a motoring accident or incident before; perhaps his license was clean. But perhaps it is also time for us to question how fit certain individuals are to be on the road.

I appeal to anyone who might be concerned that it is time for their elderly or infirm friends or relatives to stop driving not to delay. I appeal to you all to do something about it before it’s too late. And when considering their potential risk on the road, it should not be about the manner with which they have generally operated a vehicle under low-stress conditions over a number of decades, but rather the response rates that they are likely to be able to apply when something actually goes wrong.

Perhaps they make you coffee when you asked for tea from time to time. Maybe they leave cat food out for the dog. Perhaps they have to run through half a dozen names before they finally land on yours. Maybe there are a number of so-called ‘senior moments’ that often evoke a smile.

Well I can tell you one thing for sure: it’s hard to smile when an 83-year-old man confuses an accelerator for a break and in doing so kills your 33-year-old wife.

The fact is the defendant had a clean driving licence at the time and with that came his right to drive. But evidently rights can sometimes cause wrongs. And sadly for my family this wrong can never, ever be put right.

For now I have nothing else to add. I just ask that my family and I are given a little space to try to recover from what we’ve been put through over the past two years.

Thank you all very much.

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