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Aaron McKenna: We need to deal with the dangers of older drivers as much as young ones

Yes, it may be politically unpalatable to target older drivers (ie solid voters) but is that a good enough reason to allow dangerous drivers onto our road?

Aaron McKenna

EVERY SINGLE ROAD death is a senseless tragedy. There is no room to say that a single car collision is less tragic than one involving multiple vehicles, or that accidents involving children are any worse than accidents involving aunts and uncles. In this, all accidents are equal.

We recognise, however, that certain types of driving and drivers are more likely to become involved in a senseless tragedy. For years we have focused our efforts on younger drivers, and in particular young men, as a group more at risk of having an accident. We have followed the numbers and improved driver training in the early years, introducing mandatory lessons before one can take a test and introduced a rule, albeit well ignored, about learners being accompanied by someone with a full license. Upon passing a driving test today, you get to turn in your L plates for N plates that must be worn for two years.

Sensible measures 

We have decreased the blood alcohol limits that determine how many drinks one can have before getting behind the wheel of a car, and for certain categories of drivers it is now impossible to have half a half pint and not be in breach. Cars as well as drivers have been targeted, with stiff rules regulating the roadworthiness of vehicles through the much-loved NCT. When it was first introduced, cars were found on the road that were essentially held together by their carpets.

Through the good years we increased the amount of traffic patrols put out by the Gardaí and clamped down on speeding and dangerous driving. The sight of a traffic corps vehicle on a road slows all traffic down to an orderly line travelling about 5kmh below the speed limit. So, too, we have invested in the quality of our roads, with wider and better surfaced routes affording more safety.

As the recession has bitten and we have seen older cars on poorly maintained roads with fewer Gardai about, road deaths have climbed for the first time in years.

Older drivers and road safety 

Something we haven’t taken very many steps to address has been the issue of older drivers. As we age, our bodies slow down and the reflexes and range of motion available to us decreases. Our minds can also slow down or be impinged by age-related troubles, and while this doesn’t preclude us from a healthy life it does have an impact on our driving.

Some weeks back, an acquaintance was killed in a head on-collision. His car was struck by a vehicle travelling in the wrong direction down the motorway, and he died at the scene. The other driver, thankfully, survived. The older driver, aged in their 70s, had become confused and entered the motorway going the wrong way, passing the large and obtrusive signs and road markings warning against it.

When something happens, you tend to see it pop up more often. Think about buying a red car, and suddenly you’ll notice red cars everywhere. Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of cases of elderly drivers being involved in fatal accidents.

There have been several incidents of fatal road traffic accidents involving older drivers in recent months, all across the country. These accidents are tragedies in which it is not inconceivable to see age playing a role, just as if an 18 year old was killed whilst speeding down a road in Donegal.

Plain dangerous driving 

So, too, anyone driving daily will see cases of elderly drivers acting dangerously. For sure, and don’t get me wrong, they’re far from the only people on the road doing so. But I have witnessed a pattern of overly cautious driving, for example when entering motorways, or poor observational skills, for example when making a lane change among older drivers.

I was entering the M50 recently, northbound from Blanchardstown where several slipways converge, when the car in front, driven by an elderly gentleman I observed when I finally overtook him, slowed to 40kmh on the stretch into the nearside lane of the road, with traffic approaching at about 80kmh. He then pulled over slightly into the median, as if inviting me to overtake; which would have been a very dangerous manoeuvre on a slipway that was running out. This is the sort of driving that you perhaps see yourself and more often from elderly drivers.

I saw a gentleman at a post-box near my home just this week who struggled to get into his car after dropping a letter. A passing lady had to go over and help him lift his legs into the vehicle. What hope does he have reacting, moving his legs and slamming the breaks in an emergency?

The elderly do have to get a medical certificate to get their driver’s license renewed after the age of 70, but depending on someone’s renewal cycle they could be well near 80 before they need to get the cert. Even then, a local doctor well known to the person may be unwilling to certify them unfit to drive.

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Is it simply politically unpalatable?

I suspect it may be politically unpalatable to target older drivers for specific measures, given that they go and vote in great numbers with or without cars. I think it would be prudent however, for drivers who hit a certain age to be re-certified for their driving licenses by the Road Safety Authority.

Not a full test, but perhaps a test in a simulator that is specifically geared towards people of advancing age. Test reactions to common events like children chasing a ball onto a road; situational awareness – as basic as the ability to quickly check a blind spot before changing lanes – and comprehension of road signs and markings.

Indeed, you could argue that we should all have to do a few minutes of refreshing our memories after ten years holding a license. But we tend to focus our efforts onto higher risk categories of drivers, and just as young people can be more brash and prone to speeding; older people can be more infirm and unable to react.

Common sense says that for the benefit of the drivers as much as anyone they might run into, we should pay attention to helping older drivers be safe on the roads.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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