Older drivers in rear-view mirror

In the week a 90-year-old woman caused a serious crash after driving the wrong way along Dunedin's Southern Motorway, Debbie Porteous takes a look at issue of older drivers on New Zealand roads.

Older age is not a reason to stop driving, and many New Zealanders get behind the wheel well into their 90s, road safety and older people's organisations say.

While bringing up a person's fitness to drive is a difficult topic, it remains a crucial conversation to have in many people's lives.

Dunedin City Council road safety co-ordinator Debra Palmer said being able to drive was important for many older people because it allowed them to remain independent and mobile. But balancing quality of life for the older person and keeping them, and others, safe on the roads was also important, she said.

Like their younger counterparts, older drivers had to take responsibility. The council, New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) and organisations like Age Concern were doing what they could to educate older drivers about new rules and regulations, safe driving and options for getting around the city if they found themselves no longer able to drive. But families also had a role in keeping an eye on older relatives or providing advice and support as a person's driving ability deteriorated.

Ms Palmer said having those conversations was never going to be easy.

''It is a difficult one, because you can't take people's rights away.

''I wouldn't like people telling me I can't do something, I would hope my relatives would be sensitive about it.''

It was also difficult because many older drivers - there are 174,293 drivers aged 75 or over in New Zealand, including 9362 in Otago - drove responsibly and safely.

''You can't sit in judgement of all older drivers and say all older drivers are so and so ... but we can try to educate people and make an effort to help those who would like help.''

Niall Shepherd, from Age Concern, said he fielded more queries about older drivers from family members than from older drivers themselves.

But rather than judging, the organisation provided support and information they hoped would help keep people safely behind the wheel for as long as possible.

A spokesman said the NZTA also had information on its website for senior drivers, including a test for people to assess their driving skills.

Dunedin woman Terry MacTavish said there was a lot less stress for her family now their 94-year-old mother, Shona MacTavish, was no longer driving, although the older woman found the sacrifice frustrating.

She had not driven since she was seriously injured in an accident in Dunedin two years ago.

Ms MacTavish said her mother - still active - was disappointed about not driving, but was managing ''perfectly well'' using city services such as buses and discount taxis, and calling on family for rides.

Under NZTA rules, unless someone's licence is revoked or suspended, the job of deciding how long a person can continue to drive often falls to their GP. A driver must renew their licence at ages 75, 80 and every two years after that. Renewal requires a medical certificate saying a person is fit to drive.

The Dunedin-based Best Practice Advocacy Centre noted in a 2010 article for GPs on older drivers it was sometimes difficult to address the topic of driving fitness with patients and was often forgotten during complex consultations.

The advocacy centre tells GPs to listen out for alarm bell comments from patients and their relatives.

It recommends GPs make driving fitness part of their ''safety net'' checklist at the end of each consultation to ensure nothing has changed with the person between the licence renewal period.

Dunedin road policing manager Senior Sergeant Phil McDouall said it was difficult to say how big the problem of older drivers not being fit to drive was. He believed it was a hidden issue, and could worsen as the population aged.

Other than receiving calls from concerned relatives, police usually only became aware of problems with the driving of an older person if they were involved in a crash or police received a report of dangerous driving.

Relatives often asked if police could have them taken off the road, but police had no power to cancel people's licences.

In those cases, callers were referred to the NZTA or the person's GP for advice.

Rules for re-licensing older drivers
• At 75, licence must be renewed and is valid for five years. Must be renewed at 80 and every two years after that.
• Medical certificate required for licence renewal of people aged 75 and over.
• After completing a clinical assessment, a GP may recommend:
- the patient is medically fit to drive;
- they are medically fit to drive with specified conditions (e.g. automatic vehicle only, no night driving, within 10km of home);
- they are medically fit to drive subject to an on-road safety test or further specialist or occupational therapist assessment;
- the patient is not medically fit to drive.
• If a person is not medically fit to drive, or fails one of the ordered tests, licence will expire on their next birthday.
• GP can advise person not to drive in the meantime. But if they believe the person would drive, then the GP is required to notify the NZTA, which would, if appropriate, suspend or revoke the licence.
• Police cannot revoke licences.
• According to a yearly NZTA report, drivers aged 70 and over were involved in 11% (45) of fatal crashes and 6% (885) of all injury crashes in 2012.

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