Jeanette O'Donnell with her Mazda 323 at her Beaumaris home.

At 80, Jeanette O'Donnell is still on the road. Photo: Penny Stephens

Melbourne, 1951. Prince of Wails Johnnie Ray is breaking hearts on record players everywhere but the post-war city, on the brink of a stark architectural upheaval, has no taste for sentimentality. Meanwhile in Collins Street - yes, Collins Street - 18-year-old Jeanette Bruce is sitting her driving test.

A big burly policeman is squeezed into the back seat of her dad's bottle green Austin A30, clutching a clipboard. ''Pretend I'm not here,'' he says.

The city’s infrastructure has been built more for young males with quick reflexes. -Dr Sjaan Koppel 

Jeanette skilfully negotiates the trams as she wends her way through the city's grid but ignores the cop's sudden order to pull over. ''Why didn't you do what I said?'' he says as she keeps on driving. ''Because there was a fire hydrant there,'' she says and the RACV tutor sitting next to her gives her a secret smile. She passes the test.

Now in her 81st year, Jeanette O'Donnell is still driving, though these days she doesn't go anywhere near the city, let alone Collins Street. The Austin has undergone several incarnations and today she drives a silver blue Mazda 323. It has notched up a mere 60,000 kilometres on the clock in 11 years; not even enough for a service.

As the years passed, Jeanette worked her way up the ranks from junior insurance clerk to managing her own clients and raised two children. She has witnessed Melbourne morph with each passing decade; outside the door of her blonde brick home in Beaumaris, a major road servicing a steady stream of traffic has long since replaced the dirt track. She has always enjoyed driving, cruising up to Queensland twice with her husband, but her last big trip was to see her sister in Colac two years ago. On that trip, her daughter insisted she stop at Geelong and call her ''to let her know that I was still awake''.

Jeanette is one of the 419,615 drivers in Victoria who is over 70 - about 10 per cent of all licence holders. Incredibly, according to VicRoads, there are 58 people licensed to drive in this state who are aged over 100 and more than 13,000 in their 90s.

Just before Christmas, a 93-year-old Chadstone man died after his Toyota sedan was rear-ended while he was trying to turn right from High Street into Harold Street, in Ashwood, and was pushed into the path of an oncoming station wagon.

Eighteen months ago, in Los Angeles, a 100-year-old made headlines around the world when he backed his blue Cadillac on to a pavement, hitting 11 people, including nine children, near a primary school. Thankfully they all survived. But are stories like this cause for alarm? How safe are older drivers?

Pretty much as safe as anyone else, according to the Monash University Accident and Research Centre. While the most recent crash statistics do show a spike in the number of injuries and fatalities in that age group, this, according to adjunct Professor Brian Fildes, is more likely to be due to increased frailty.

An accident that can leave a 20-year-old with a bump on the knee can mean broken bones and a hospital admission to someone much older. (Fildes is also involved in research that shows the elderly are more at risk of injury as pedestrians than they are as drivers.)

In Victoria, there is no compulsory licence test for older drivers - who are generally considered to be over 70. Drivers over 75 are given only a three-year licence (instead of 10) which is automatically renewed.

(In NSW, from the age of 85, drivers must sit a biennial driving test or opt for a restricted licence that limits their driving. Interestingly, crash statistics involving older drivers are similar in both states.)

But with the population ageing as rapidly as it is and the spectre of dementia closing in as the years pass, is it time to introduce a compulsory test in Victoria?

''No,'' says Dr Sjaan Koppel, a senior research fellow also at the accident and research centre. ''The ageing process is different for everyone. You can't compare one 75-year-old to another. Any screening tool should be function-based rather than age-based.''

Fildes agrees, saying age-based testing is another form of discrimination. He dismisses the idea of viewing the elderly as a homogenous entity; a Planet Old, of which one automatically gains citizenship on reaching 70.

''There is no suggestion that older people are putting other people or themselves at risk. It's not age that is the problem, it's functional abilities. Of course, they are somewhat correlated, but we don't want to be testing people just because they are old. There are plenty of people in their 40s and 50s suffering the same impairments, so these are the things we should focus on.''

Melbourne School of Life author Anne Karpf laments gerontophobia in her latest book How to Age. We have, she argues, a deep fear of ageing, viewing older people as being on a sharp trajectory of decline once they've hit 50.

We tend to dismiss the wealth of knowledge accrued over time and measure success in terms of wrinkle-reduction. How many times have we sat puce and livid behind a driver with a winking indicator who refuses to turn right and written them off as senile?

Yet elderly drivers tend not to be traffic-weavers, tailgaters, petrol heads or hoons; they have long since ceased in the delusion that the car is an extension of their genitalia. Nor do they tend to drink or text while driving, having learned in an age when the only distraction was the radio.

Still, as O'Donnell has noticed, some do drive at the pace of a funeral cortege, hog the middle lane, brake at the sound of a breeze and take forever to drive into a parking space.

While a famous US/Swedish study shows that all drivers, regardless of age, consider themselves ''above average'' with most ranking themselves ''superior'', the reality is that ageing does bring problems: failing vision, neck and joint problems and cognitive decline.

There are 330,000 people living with some form of dementia in Australia (78,000 in Victoria alone) and this is estimated to rise to 900,000 by 2050. One of the problems associated with the condition is a lack of insight into one's own state of health.

Without mandatory testing, the onus is on the driver to monitor their own behaviour and report any medical conditions to VicRoads, which will then carry out a medical review to assess the driver's fitness. But deterioration of one's faculties is often an insidious process, and some might not recognise a decline until too late.

This is the big issue, admits Koppel. The Monash University Accident and Research Centre is nearing the end of a five-year, Australian-New Zealand-Canadian study that looks at developing better ways of identifying older drivers who are truly at risk.

''At the moment we don't have a reliable and valid screening tool to determine who is safe and unsafe,'' Koppel says. ''Most older drivers are really good at recognising age-related changes, and adjust their driving accordingly, but the problem is that there is a small cohort of drivers probably with cognitive impairment who can't recognise those age-related changes and they are the ones we should be targeting.''

In the absence of mandatory testing, awareness is the key. O'Donnell is mindful of the responsibility of being an older driver. She visits her doctor twice yearly for a medical check-up; as a diabetic she is aware that the condition can affect her eyes and she monitors her diet very carefully.

She is also part of a close community that looks out for each other and she is aware that her children surreptitiously keep an eye on her driving. ''I have a little grin to myself. I don't say anything to them but I have that feeling they are watching me. It does help me to feel safe.''

Ten years ago she lost her husband to Parkinson's, a disease that forced him to eventually relinquish the wheel. ''It was hard for him,'' she says. ''He said it made him feel useless and he had a few tears. But I sat there quietly and said 'how would you feel if you knocked over a small child?' And he looked at me and smiled and said, 'you know, you're right'.''

It is a thought that is always in the back of her mind. Two years ago, while driving down an unlit road at night, she was spooked by the dark outline of the trees in the wind. For the first time she felt vulnerable behind the wheel. ''I said to myself, If I feel this uneasy I shouldn't be driving,'' and since then she hasn't driven at night.

Nor does she drive on highways, apart from a couple of kilometres on the Nepean Highway to visit her doctor and she always avoids rush-hour.

Both Alzheimer's Australia and the RACV run driver awareness programs and last month they launched the Changed Conditions Ahead kit, aimed to help drivers with dementia know when and how to relinquish the wheel.

Alzheimer's Australia spokesman Jack Sach says it also helps families and carers supporting a person with dementia come to terms with the loss of what for some, is a thread to independence.

''Family and carers play an important role,'' he says. They are often the first to observe changes in the person's driving skills and are likely to be closest to the driver in the challenging transition to non-driving.

According to VicRoads, the best approach to ensuring that drivers do not continue beyond the point where they are safe is to support them in notifying the authority of their diagnosis.

Many people in the early stages of dementia are still able to drive - if a driver wants to continue, they can then go through the process of a VicRoads medical review. Sometimes a conditional licence may be issued instead, with enforced restrictions such as only driving in daylight or off-peak hours, or within a set radius from home.

The RACV also offers free one-hour awareness sessions for older drivers, which are often held at Probus clubs and retirement complexes, covering topics such as health and medication, vehicle safety and thinking and planning for future mobility.

As O'Donnell attests, driving was a much simpler affair in the era before freeways, overpasses and the dreaded hook turn.

An ordinary right turn is difficult enough - a study by the British Automobile Association showed it to be the biggest enemy for older drivers because roads have become so much busier and they are forced to take risks at an age when it is harder to judge the speed of approaching vehicles.

Similarly, a US study found that 37 per cent of fatalities and 60 per cent of injuries experienced by older drivers take place at intersections. Freeways are also problematic for many older drivers, particularly merging into the traffic with many slowing down and even stopping at the end of the entrance ramp.

As supersized Melbourne continues to swell, is enough being done to keep in mind the needs of older drivers? Koppel agrees that so far the city's infrastructure has been built more for young males with quick reflexes, but is optimistic that the needs of an ageing population will be taken into consideration in future developments.

It is, she argues in everyone's interests to keep older people driving for as long as possible.

By 2050 almost one in four people will be over 65 and one in 10 will be over 80. Thanks to improved healthcare they will quite possibly be working, visiting the gym, the theatre, restaurants and club, keeping busy, staying active.

And managing the fundamentals of life, such as shopping and medical appointments, is much harder without a car, leading to an expansion of in-home services.

Brian Fildes points out that age-based testing in other states such as Queensland - where you are required to carry a medical certificate that allows you to drive if you are 75 or over - has led to many older drivers handing over their licences which, he warns, can lead to social isolation and a dependence on public transport.

Last year, Western Australia, the only other state that enforced driving tests for the elderly, dropped them, saying they were unnecessary and discriminatory.

South Australia plans to scrap all medical tests for drivers aged 70 and over by September this year in a bid to keep the ageing population more involved in the community.

Jeanette O'Donnell knows her days of big trips to Colac and beyond are now over, but she is thankful she can still nip down to the shops, pick up the grandchildren from school and creche and drive to church.

Because she is over 75 she knows her next licence will only be for three years. But in the garage her car gleams and her 62-year driving record remains unblemished. She is, by no means, at the end of the road.

Kathy Evans is a Melbourne journalist.