GPs often have to report elderly patients who are no longer safe to drive to the DVLA. Columnist Dr David Turner says it’s time to change the way we see the driving licence
I stopped my father driving. He never knew that to his dying day.
He had been developing dementia, but had no insight into his condition. Especially in terms of how it was affecting his driving ability. After a few near misses on the road – reported to me in scarily graphic detail by my mother – we decided enough was enough.
I phoned his GP, explained the situation, and asked her to please advise him to voluntarily hand back his driving licence or, if he refused, that she would advise the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) on his behalf.
My father was a stubborn man. Having driven everything from an HGV to a motorbike, he refused to believe that he was no longer safe on the road. It took the GP writing to the DVLA about his medical conditions before his licence was revoked.
This is a problem we see very often as GPs. An elderly person who, for a variety of physical and cognitive reasons, is almost certainly no longer safe to drive but refuses to accept they are no longer fit to hold a licence. And often, it is a son or daughter who comes to see us on behalf of a parent to express concerns.
We live in a car-orientated society, and for many of us, four wheels are seen as freedom and independence. Public transport options in many parts of the UK are as good as non-existent, so the private car is the only way for some people to get around.
An article in the Times reported in March that a senior coroner had called for a driving-age limit following a 95-year-old driver killed a woman on a crossing.
Drivers over the age of 70 are currently required to apply for a licence every three years. There is no mandatory medical assessment, though; the decision to relicense the individual to drive is made on the basis of the individual’s own assessment of their fitness to hold a licence.
If private cars did not already exist and someone suggested today that we introduce them and only require people to pass a competency test once, as young as 17, which would then allow them to carry on driving into their nineties without further assessment, they would be called out as deranged.
The problem is that many see the driving licence as a right, not a privilege. Most people, quite rightly, expect professional drivers to undergo regular reassessments of their capability, yet many do not feel the same rigorous reassessment should apply to themselves.
On average, five people per day are killed on UK roads and 84 are seriously injured. If any medical treatment or intervention was killing and injuring people at this rate, can you imagine what the fall out would be?
My proposal would be to retest every driver – irrespective of age or health – every five years. Yes, a bit like revalidation. This could be done by using driving simulators so that it would not involve large numbers of driving assessors being trained. There would be banks of these simulators in out-of-town sites, and you book a slot online, turn up, put your credit card and driving licence in, and off you go.
You would either pass with advisory points, or fail with a need to have further instruction in a particular area of driving, such as distancing from other vehicles. You would pay for the retest yourself, so the whole scheme would fund itself with no need for the taxpayer’s money.
It goes without saying that if a GP was treating a patient and diagnosed them with a condition that could affect their driving capabilities, then they would advise the DVLA as they do now. But if everyone had a routine driving reassessment, it would take the burden of reporting unsafe drivers to the DVLA away from GPs.
It is time for a change, and for us to see the driving licence as something to be earned and retained on merit.
Dr David Turner is a GP in Hertfordshire. Read more of his blogs here