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Renewing licences for older drivers

Does it have to be traumatic? Should it be a test for Alzheimers? Should there be a test simply based on age?
 |  Stan Stewart  | 

At 86, I have been through the New Zealand relicensing system a few times. This requires a visit to a GP and his/her signature approving the senior person’s application.

 The first time I needed to renew my licence, I went to a younger Doctor. For the driver’s license approval, he had me book a double consultation appointment. He performed many tests on my reflexes, my sense of space and my ability to remember information/lists. I passed everything and he signed the paper which allowed me to obtain my licence. I felt I had been to an exam or was  on trial and wondered why when I had never had a car accident.

 Recently, my 88-year-old friend told me of the tests he had to go through to obtain the doctors approval to drive. “It was gruelling,” he said.  Marguerite Muellers, educational psychologist and also a member of Grey Power, reports that Grey Power has been advocating for some time for the adoption of a nationally agreed evaluation for cognitive impairment – working with Waka Kotahi and the NZ College of GP’s to find solutions that protect both older drivers and all other road users.

 Marguerite says, “The current tests used are not well understood by older people and many can’t see how they relate to the ability to drive. Even more worrying, our research shows that the most common tests used are derived from tests for Alzheimer’s,” continues Marguerite. “These are not good assessors of driving capabilities.” 

A couple of months ago, I had to renew my license. This time I searched up on the net the possible tests I would face. The one that made me anxious was reciting the alphabet backwards. I worked on that for a week. When it came to my doctor’s appointment, he never asked me to recite the alphabet backwards. My GP knew me well and had previously guided me through several medical adventures. He assessed my suitability for driving in his own way and that day my license was renewed. Phew!

 For many older persons, the license renewal is a trauma. To lose the right to drive is a major life blow from which many do not recover. Seniors rely on driving for shopping, social and family contacts. Like me, many of them have heard of tricky tests and being asked to perform tasks which were not part of their normal life. It’s had me wondering is there another way? Do all developed countries approach the licensing of older drivers in the same way?

 Let’s start with our cousins across the ditch. In Australia, every state has its own laws for licensing older drivers. Some states have what they call, ‘Self-Assessment’. This may include a doctor’s assessment but not necessarily so. In the most populous state, New South Wales, an annual Doctor’s examination is required. In Victoria, there are no restrictions on older drivers. It is interesting that when it comes to accidents involving older drivers, there is no difference between the statistics in NSW and Victoria.

The European Union has researched the safety benefits of the various approaches to licensing older drivers. I quote from one report.

“One of the few evaluations of existing driver testing programmes has compared Finnish and Swedish licensing practices. Finland requires regular medical check-ups in conjunction with licence renewal starting at age 70, whereas Sweden has no such age-related control. A comparison of Finland and Sweden shows no apparent reduction in crashes as a result of the Swedish programme. However, Finland had a higher rate of fatalities among unprotected older road users than Sweden, arguably the result of an increase in the number of older pedestrians who had lost their driving licence. An Australian study reached a similar conclusion. Although the state of Victoria has no age-related licensing controls, its crash statistics for older drivers are no worse than those of other states with established testing programmes.

 When it comes to Marguerite Mueller’s home country, Germany, she says, “No one has ever heard about such tests. We are talking about 83.2million inhabitants. I came from a household where my late Mother was the first female taxi driver in the state of the Lower Rhine. It has always been up to the older driver and their family to make such an important decision on whether the person is capable to still drive a car!” At present the Driver Licence Test nationwide for older people, is utterly inconsistent. In places like Whitianga, Tairua and Pauanui and coromandel and north of the town, there is no regular system of affordable public transport, It is of concern for our entire community how the older citizens are being treated. 

Where to from here? I think fitness testing for seniors in relation to driving licences is here to stay. However, I believe the appropriateness of the current test should be evaluated.

 Marguerite believes there needs to be more advocating from local groups.

 She raises some practical matters:

·         “When booking an appointment for a driver licence, bring a support person along, either a close family member or friend.

·         Your car is very familiar to you whereas the testing venue and atmosphere may not be. Make sure you are comfortable and the room is well lit and you can hear what is being said. 

·         It is time to advocate for “a Restricted Drivers Licence’ to enable senior drivers to drive around their familiar town but not do the long distances, motorways, or big city centre trips anymore. This doesn’t need to require a great big R plate but be a bound agreement.”

But more important, let’s respect our older people and not create unnecessary testing and the wrong kind of testing. It’s time for new ways of looking at things for our seniors.”

Aging is a hill we all must climb.  However, I am all for using whatever aids are available in this modern world to help individuals with this climb. Possibly more than at any time of life, the ability to drive is of utmost value to individuals who are aging. Let’s not shut them out of life unnecessarily based solely on age.