In our increasingly car-centric culture, driving can be a lifeline for older people. But as the average age of UK drivers rises, are there any risks posed by hvaing an older generation behind the wheel? Media Fellow Howard Ryland investigates

New research reveals that the increasing population of older drivers pose little additional danger and highlights areas where changes could be made to keep the roads safe for all. Speaking at the British Science Festival Dr Charles Musselwhite, an academic from Swansea University’s Centre for Innovative Ageing emphasised the importance of driving for older people. He noted that ‘We live in an increasingly hypermobile society, where cars are a symbol of independence that allow us to connect with others’. He went on to describe the implications of the ‘successful ageing boom’, which raises questions about how to maximise personal freedom for older people in a safe way.

It is recognised that as people age their bodies and minds undergo a number of changes that can have an impact on driving. One example is the length of time it takes for the human eye to recover from the glare of a headlight, which rises from just two seconds for an average 30 year old, to over nine seconds in a 60 year old. Dr Musselwhite explained that older people will often modify their behaviour to compensate for these changes; driving more cautiously or choosing to travel during less busy periods.

High profile news stories can draw attention to the perceived dangers of older people in charge of vehicles, but do the facts support the idea that elderly drivers pose a greater safety risk? Although 85 year olds are over four times as likely to die in a collision than 45 year olds, new data suggests that it is fragility rather than age that determines the outcome of traffic accidents.

Interestingly the pattern of accidents changes as we age, with a significantly higher proportion of collisions in an older population occurring as a result of turning right across traffic. Research using a simulator suggests that older people take longer to make such manoeuvres, but it is only when placed under time pressure that they make more mistakes.

So what can society do to support older drivers better? One more draconian approach is to introduce additional testing as people age. Australia’s New South Wales requires drivers over 85 to regularly pass a practical test in order to retain an unrestricted licence. Denmark has a system of screening older drivers’ brain function, but evaluations have not demonstrated safety benefits of this policy. Indeed, such stringent measures may force older people to become pedestrians, where they may be even more vulnerable.

Another approach is to require doctors to report patients who they feel are unsafe. However, many medical professionals are reluctant to break confidentiality in this way, as it risks damaging the therapeutic relationship and may increase the likelihood of depression if driving is prohibited. Some advocate leaving it to the insurance market to determine who it is too costly to insure, although others criticise this as being discriminatory. Could a voluntary system of signs, similar to the ‘P’ plate for newly qualified drivers, allow older drivers with increased vulnerability to signal their needs to fellow road users?

Whatever the solution, Dr Musselwhite stresses the need to ensure that the driving environment is appropriate for older people, both as drivers and as pedestrians, in order to maximise the involvement of this expanding demographic in society.

Dr Howard Ryland is a Wellcome Trust Media Fellow, placed at the Londonist. He is a ‎Higher Specialty Trainee in Forensic Psychiatry at ‎South West London and St George's Mental Health NHS Trust.