ANU research on drivers over the age of 75.

VOLUNTEERING: The driving habits and performance of Ruth Aylott, of Ainslie, and Brian Hedley, of Jerrabomberra, will be tracked by Australian National University researchers. Photo: Melissa Adams

A lot has changed since Ruth Aylott got her driver’s licence.

Ms Aylott, now 80, passed her driving test in a 1913 Fiat  64 years ago and has spent a good part of the past decades as a professional driver, shuttling new cars from Sydney to Canberra or driving a minibus for the family business.

Even though she has passed all her mandatory annual medical tests since she turned 75, Ms Aylott acknowledges things are different now compared with years past.

‘‘My driving has changed because you’ve got a certain amount of confidence but, as you age, your confidence tends to change a bit because of the changing situation of driving,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s a bloody rat race sometimes.’’

For the next two years, Ms Aylott’s driving habits and performance will be tracked by researchers from the Australian National University’s Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing as the centre collects information on the ability of drivers aged 75 and above.

 Researcher Kaarin Anstey said older drivers often cop a bad rap from the public  but there was no hard scientific data to link measurable factors that cause driving skills to deteriorate.

‘‘It is a concern,’’ she said. ‘‘We know that crash rates, particularly in the over-85s, are much higher. But we also know there are some very good drivers in the over-85s and one of the problems is we haven’t got the tools that we need to identify those who are at risk.

‘‘We don’t want to discriminate against the good drivers but we also, as a community, need to ensure that people who are unsafe are not on the roads. It’s getting that balance right.’’

Volunteers in Professor Anstey’s study will undertake lab and health tests, road rule tests and an on-road test – and will then be contacted once a month over two years to monitor driving performance and changed driving habits.

Professor Anstey said it is a critical issue – particularly in Canberra, where alternate transport options are not always adequate for people who cannot drive.

‘‘It’s an extremely important issue and it’s partly of our own making because of the ways we’ve built our cities,’’ she said. ‘‘If we’d developed the whole infrastructure so that people weren’t dependent on the car, it wouldn’t be such an issue. We have to take responsibility for the fact that we set it up this way as well.’’

Another participant in the study, Brian Hedley, got his licence in Temora about 60 years ago, where the process was a mere formality due to his good relationship with the local police sergeant.

Mr Hedley, 77, said he does not do as much driving as he used to and admits the pace of traffic today compared with 1950s Temora can be intimidating. But he said taking part in the study had already helped improve his driving.

‘‘Now, when you go to Sydney to drive, it’s frightening because you never know what the other person is going to do,’’ he said. ‘‘We all think we’re the best drivers in the world. But, after I’d done all the tests, I realised that there were little problem areas that, in actual fact, I’ve corrected now.’’

Mr Hedley said he had never had a serious accident and he hoped he would be able to keep the independence that comes with having his licence for a few years yet.

‘‘If they suddenly stopped me driving, it would be a dreadful thing.’’

Drivers over the age of 75 who would like to take part in the study should call Ally Gunn at the ANU on (02) 6125 1457 or  email  ally.gunn@anu.edu.au.