ACT News

ANU study looks at better ways of assessing the safety of older drivers

In the 53 years John Robinson has been driving he's been a member of six car clubs and even gained his heavy vehicle driver's licence.

But the 70-year-old knows that in five years his time as a driver could come to an end if he fails the medical exam all 75-year-old drivers must undergo each year in the ACT.

John Robinson, of Gungahlin, who is taking part in an ANU research project to evaluate driver safety in older drivers.
John Robinson, of Gungahlin, who is taking part in an ANU research project to evaluate driver safety in older drivers.  Photo: Rohan Thomson

"Whatever happens, happens, but if I fail I'd have to get used to not driving and I'd miss it dearly," he said.

"[The exam] is a hassle, but it is important."

The desire to keep his licence for as long as he can, and help others do the same, was his prime motivator to sign up for a study by the Australian National University (ANU) which could lead to an overhaul of the tests used to assess whether older drivers are fit to drive.

Despite growth in the population and numbers of licence-holders, in the decade up to 2013 road crash fatalities in Australia declined by 24.6 per cent, but fatalities involving people aged 65 or over increased by 8 per cent, a Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) report released this year revealed.

The study's lead investigator, and director of the ANU's centre for research on ageing, health and wellbeing, Professor Kaarin Anstey said people over 85 are the most at risk of having a crash.

"People [driving] over 85 used to be the exception but now we'll have hundreds of thousands," she said.

"Some people can keep driving until they're 100, others can't." 

Professor Anstey said it was difficult to work out which drivers might need intervention and the current systems needed to be refined.

"Seeing someone face-to-face doesn't tell you much about their driving skills," she said.

"You're not assessing other things that may be developing over time."

"We need low-cost reliable measures to alert us to potential problems."

The study will follow 600 drivers in Brisbane and Canberra for two years focusing on their vision, memory, reaction times and driving skills.

It could also inform ways of improving driving with the potential for developing refresher courses for experienced drivers.

"Driving is a skill that needs to be maintained as road rules change," Professor Anstey said.

Mr Robinson agreed and said all drivers could benefit from more driver training and should undergo new testing every five years when they renew their licence.

"Canberra was the first city to use roundabouts for traffic control and 90 years on we're still learning how to drive around them," he said.

Professor Anstey said the study would consider adapting the current approaches to driver screening for younger drivers to suit older drivers including the hazard perception and road rules knowledge tests used in Australia and the useful field of view test used in the United States to test peripheral vision – something which often declines in older drivers.

She said the ability to detect motion was just one aspect of eye health that was important for driving.

The researchers hope to take their recommendations to health practitioners, the government and the public at the end of the study.

"We've already got 200 wonderful volunteers but we're looking for any women over 65… and we're keen for anyone with concerns about their memory over 65," she said.

"We also need more men aged 80 and over."

As part of the study, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), a public seminar will be held on October 31 at the ANU focused on the impact of declining vision on driver safety.

For more information or to volunteer for the study please contact Stephanie Sabadas on 6125 1457 or email crahw.dash@anu.edu.au.