For anybody who needs convincing that the official “road safety” establishment is part of the problem of danger on the roads, look no further than SUPPORTING SAFE DRIVING INTO OLD AGE: A National Older Driver Strategy . Allegedly addressing the problems of older drivers, this report – as so much of official “road safety” does routinely – accommodates them to the detriment of their actual or potential victims.
More older drivers?
A key assumption of “A National Older Driver Strategy” (I’ll call it NODS) is that there will be far more elderly drivers. While there may indeed be an increase, or even an increase with a sensible transport policy, the kind of numbers discussed are essentially a version of “predict and provide”. Rather than see the current transport mix as problematic, and attempting to change it towards the more sustainable modes, NODS embraces a non-sustainable future where motorisation rules.
According to former transport Minister Lord Whitty (Chairman of the authors, the Road Safety Foundation) “Being able to drive is a key part of maintaining independence, looking after oneself and the personal well-being that keeps older people healthy and fulfilled. Giving up driving can trigger decline, reliance on others and expensive public services.” So never mind walking or cycling, it’s driving that keeps you healthy!
There is a brief mention that older people should have access to alternatives. NODS doesn’t consider that many older people may, unlike the authors of the report, actually prefer to live in a less car-dominated society. But the assumption is that the alternatives would only be taxis. There is one brief reference to public transport (presumably one of those “expensive public services”), and none at all to cycling.
What’s the problem?
There is a reference to walking – but as a problem:
“It would be easy to solve the “older driver problem” by keeping older people off the road and making it far more difficult for them to renew or obtain a licence. However that could not be justified by the limited risk they pose to themselves and others as drivers, and the significant risk they would then run as pedestrians…”
Quite apart from the mealy-mouthed avoidance of tackling dangerous behaviour, here we see a staple of “road safety” ideology. Simply walking about is seen as problematic because of the vulnerability to danger from the motorised. In the ideal world of NODS (and the “road safety” establishment) the aim is to get people coddled into crashworthy cars, and endanger those still left outside them, rather than reduce danger at source and support the healthy and environmentally benign modes. The problem is what happens to you, rather than addressing your responsibility for others’ safety.
The danger of older drivers
This – what happens to older drivers rather than the threat they pose to others – is the phenomenon lying behind this report. Obviously older drivers are frailer and more likely to suffer when crashes occur. But for us the issue is what kind of threat they pose to others. NODS is keen to suggest that there is no special reason to single out older drivers, but looking at the research they quote (p.23) we see that over-70s do 9% of car miles and are involved in 7% (a similar proportion) of pedestrian deaths. Also: “As you get older you are more likely to be at fault after middle age”.
Obviously there are greater dangers from the under-25s, and the older age group should not be singled out as the problem. But that means that the problems of danger from elderly drivers should be addressed as well as other problems, not minimised. There is recognition that there can indeed be greater problems for other road users, with the CEO of the insurance company funding NODS saying: “…it is right to show a greater interest in preventing accidents among the over 75s. This does more than merely protect their safety: it also helps vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists of all ages whom we fear, based on our own claims data, are more likely to be seriously injured by an older driver” (my emphasis).
In addition (under “Is action needed?”), we learn that: “Older drivers have reduced ability to judge and adapt to speed, and to read complex driving situations. Vision, reaction times and skills in executing manoeuvres decline with age”. Also: “As the population ages and the number of people with cognitive impairment increases (the Alzheimer’s Society estimates that more than 850,000 people have dementia diagnoses), the risk to drivers, passengers and other road users is increasing.”
From the above, the Road Danger Reduction movement would argue that there needs to be a realisation that danger from older drivers needs to be tackled, alongside danger from other age groups. But what do we get from NODS? Apart from ignoring the sustainable/healthy transport agenda, we have no real attempt to address the issue.
The one measure we have in place is the laughable self-declaration of fitness drivers make at age 70. This is, of course, hopeless: NODS notes that “Self-declaration of medical conditions has been shown clearly in one study not to be reliable…”. But their answer is to – raise this age to 75! Apart from that, we have the suggestion that older drivers should have taken an eyesight test, and the usual “road safety” demands for more crashworthy vehicles and road environments where signage and junctions are easier to negotiate for people who are less capable of doing so. Other than that we have “driver appraisal” schemes to encourage older drivers to drive properly –voluntarily, of course – more research, and a Minister for older drivers.
I – and by the way, I am 64 – haven’t mentioned the usual solutions that are proposed. Partly this is because even a compulsory re-take of the driving test could just be another pseudo-control of road danger, with drivers behaving properly for 20 minutes before going back to their bad driving.
But in a sense that’s not the point. The point is that the agencies of the “road safety” establishment simply don’t genuinely see danger from motorised road users as a problem in the first place. And that’s why, whether the drivers are young or old, what we get are polite suggestions to drive better, combined with a commitment towards more motorisation. Until we replace “road safety” with road danger reduction – reducing danger at source – that’s what we will continue to get.