Older drivers

Older people make up an increasing proportion of the populations of developed nations and consequently an increasing proportion of the driving population. In Europe, the number of people aged over 65 is projected to double between 2010 and 2050 [1]. In the UK, the number of drivers aged 70 or older increased 38% from 2002 to 2013 [2].

Research does not indicate that there is a specific age at which all drivers become unable to drive safely [3]. People age differently and someone at 70 years of age may be fitter, more alert and active then someone else aged 60 years or younger. However, ageing eventually brings about a general deterioration in health and physical ability, as well as changes in cognitive performance, which can all affect driving [4]. This may be a gradual process, so people won't necessarily notice straight away if their driving is affected.

What are the risks?

Research shows that drivers aged 60 or over are no more likely to be involved in crashes than other drivers, although crash involvement rates increase from age 80 [5]. Drivers aged 60-69 actually have less than half the crash rate than drivers aged 20-29 [6]. This is likely to be because older drivers tend to be far less likely to take risks such as driving too fast or while distracted [7]. This helps to compensate for any deterioration in health and driving performance, such as slower reaction times.

However, in a crash, the risk of a person aged 60 or older being killed, whether in a vehicle or on foot or bicycle, is more than double that of a younger person [8]. This is because older people’s bodies are more fragile, so they are more likely to suffer life-threatening injuries. They are less likely to recover from injuries or respond to emergency treatment, due to less physical strength and a greater risk of subsequent infections or other medical complications [9].

What happens as we age?

For most people as we age, our general health and fitness, eyesight, hearing, reaction time and physical mobility will begin to deteriorate. For example, tests have shown that reaction time in response to hazards increases with age [10].

Below are some of the most common age-related problems that may affect the safety of older drivers.

Eyesight

Eyesight deteriorates gradually with age. It is possible to lose up to 40% of your vision before noticing a problem [11], so it is important for drivers of any age to get regular eye tests, at least every two years, but especially important for older drivers as they are more likely to develop vision problems. Most medical conditions that affect eyesight, such as cataract or glaucoma, are more common in older people [12]. Brake therefore recommends that older drivers get their eyes tested annually, or straight away if they notice a problem.

Poor eyesight can be a particular problem at night. For every decade past age 25, drivers need twice the brightness to see properly, therefore by age 75 some drivers may need 32 times the brightness they did at age 25 [13]. Older drivers are also more susceptible to glare and take longer to recover from being dazzled. Recovery time from glare increases from average two seconds at age 15 to nine seconds at age 65 [14].

Learn more: Read our fact page on driver eyesight.

Hearing

Good hearing is important for driving, warning drivers of potential hazards or an emergency vehicle approaching. Hearing begins to deteriorate slightly from age 30-40, and the rate of deterioration increases as you get older. By the age of 80 most people have significant hearing problems [15].

Movement

Older people often suffer joint and muscle stiffness, which may affect how easily they can turn their head and body to look round when reversing or checking blind spots [16]. In many cases, adjusting seat and steering column positions can help, along with extra blind spot mirrors and technological solutions such as power steering and automatic transmission [17]. There is also some evidence that daily basic stretches and exercises can improve flexibility and range of motion for older drivers [18].

Health

Drivers with certain chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, are at higher risk of causing crashes [19]. These illnesses are more common in older people. Older people are also more at risk from dementia, which severely impairs driving as the disease progresses, although driving impairment may not be apparent in the early stages [20].

Medicines

As various health conditions become more prevalent with age, many older drivers will be taking over-the-counter or prescription medication. Many medications can impair driving, for example by causing drowsiness and affecting concentration [21].

Learn more: Read our fact page on driving on drugs or medication.

Junctions

Older drivers are over-represented in crashes at junctions, and more likely to be involved in “failed to look” crashes [22]. This is thought to be because older drivers are less able to judge the speed of oncoming vehicles [23], and may also be due to problems with eyesight and reduced visual field [24].

What is the law on older drivers?

Drivers must renew their licence at age 70, and every three years after that [25]. To renew their licence drivers must confirm to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) that their eyesight meets current standards, and they do not have any medical conditions that may affect their driving. No formal medical check or eye test is required for this, but Brake recommends that older drivers do seek regular medical advice (see below). The DVLA recommends that older drivers consider stopping driving if they begin to lose concentration, have slower reactions, or begin to lose their memory.

Professional truck and bus drivers must re-apply for their licence, along with medical proof of physical fitness, at age 45 and every five years after until they reach age 60. At age 60 they must re-apply every year [26].

How older drivers can stay safe:

Medical checks

To be confident they are fit and healthy enough to be on the road, older drivers should visit their doctor at least once a year to discuss whether they are fit enough to continue to drive. They should also have eyesight and hearing tests at least annually and straight away if they notice any problems with their vision or hearing.

Alternative modes of transport

Some older drivers may be reluctant to give up driving as they feel they do not have any other alternatives for getting around, and that stopping driving will affect their quality of life [27]. However, public transport could prove to be the easiest, cheapest option for many older people. Pensioners are entitled to significant discounts on public transport, and at some times of the day travel is free. Using buses or trains rather than a private car will mean the driver no longer has to worry about costs including road tax, insurance, maintenance costs, petrol and parking costs, and they will also be cutting their carbon footprint. Many communities offer community transport buses which are able to pick people up directly from their doorsteps [28].

Brake campaigns for greater investment in safe, affordable and reliable public transport as a key measure to ensure older people (and everyone else) can be active and mobile without relying on car travel.

Learn more: Read our fact page on sustainable and active travel.

Vehicle design

If older people wish to continue driving, they should choose newer vehicles with the latest crash protection features and highest safety ratings. Crashes in older vehicles are far more likely to be fatal as these vehicles have less advanced crash protection [29]. Added to the increased likelihood for older people to suffer serious injuries in a crash due to their physical frailty, this means older vehicles can be dangerous for older drivers.

[1] The greying of the baby boomers: A century-long view of ageing in European populations, EuroStat, 2011

[2] Driving licence holding and vehicle availability, Department for Transport, 2014

[3] Older drivers policy paper, RoSPA, 2010

[4] Key facts: older drivers, Road Safety Observatory, 2014

[5] The licensing and safety of older drivers in Britain, Accident Analysis & Prevention, 2013

[6] Reported road casualties Great Britain 2013, Department for Transport, 2014, table RAS30025

[7] Older drivers' attitudes to distracted driving, Braunschweig University of Technology, 2011

[8] Reported road casualties Great Britain 2013, Department for Transport, 2014, table RAS30002

[9] Key facts: older drivers, Road Safety Observatory, 2014

[10] The hazard perception ability of older drivers, University of Queensland, 2008

[11] January is glaucoma awareness month, Glaucoma Research Foundation, 2014

[12] A-Z eye conditions, Eyecare Trust, undated

[13] Older drivers: a literature review, Department for Transport, 2001

[14] Older drivers: a literature review, Department for Transport, 2001

[15] Causes of hearing loss, NHS Choices, 2013

[16] Older drivers: a literature review, Department for Transport, 2001

[17] Older drivers: a literature review, Department for Transport, 2001

[18] Positive Effects Of Exercise On Mature Drivers, The Hartford And MIT AgeLab, 2014

[19] Long-term chronic diseases and crash responsibility, INSERM, 2014

[20] Older drivers: a literature review, Department for Transport, 2001

[21] The Incidence of Drugs and Alcohol in Road Accident Fatalities, Transport Research Laboratory, 2000

[22] Why do older drivers have more 'failed to look' crashes? Transport Research Laboratory, 2012

[23] Drivers over the age of 75 struggle to gauge the speed of oncoming vehicles, University of Greenwich, 2013

[24] Why do older drivers have more 'failed to look' crashes? Transport Research Laboratory, 2012

[25] DVLA’s current medical guidelines for professionals: Age (older drivers), DVLA, 2014

[26] DVLA’s current medical guidelines for professionals: Age (older drivers), DVLA, 2014

[27] Older drivers policy paper, RoSPA, 2010

[28] Public transport and concessions, Age UK, undated

[29] How Vehicle Age and Model Year Relate to Driver Injury Severity in Fatal Crashes, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2013

November 2014