AS you get older, you find that your eyesight is not as good as it once was, neither is your depth perception, your reflexes are slower and you are extra tense and stressed when driving.
Is it time to give up driving? How do you know when it’s time to surrender the car keys?
According to the statistics by the Royal Malaysian Police, there were 1,217 fatal road accidents involving those aged 61 and above in 2013. This is a mere 8% of the total fatalities due to road accidents in that year.
The highest age groups were the 16-20 (1,985 or 14%) and 26-30 (1,953 or 13.9%).
Prof Dr Wong Shaw Voon, director-general of the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (Miros), says this should in no way be construed as senior citizens being safer drivers than young drivers.
He admits that senior citizens might be perceived as being safer drivers because, knowing they have a slower response time, they tend to drive slower so of course they have a longer time to respond to any situation. A lot of times, they have already reduced the amount of driving that they do, so the exposure is less as well.
“However, the younger people who push themselves to the other limit including a high speed, would have a shorter time to respond.
“Of course, it’s not just about the driver. It’s also about the vehicle and the environment,” says Prof Wong.
According to Miros, there is no age limit for the elderly when it comes to having a driving licence.
In fact, Prof Wong says that while there has been some talk about the need for an age limit and a fitness to drive test for those driving commercial vehicles like public buses, the same cannot be said for senior citizens.
“We have done some studies on how other countries handle this and from our data, it is not as we might think – that there is a lot more people having fatal car accidents as they get older. It’s not really true because we are all human beings, not robots,” he says.
There are many elements that come into play when there is a road accident – the driver, the car, the road, the environment and other vehicles and drivers.
One 60-year-old may not be fit to drive, but another may be fit to drive until he or she is over 70.
“Where would you draw the line between yes you can drive and no you can’t drive? It’s not fair to draw a line as it would be different for each individual,” he says.
Prof Wong informs that while fitness to drive tests may be necessary for those driving commercial vehicles, this is a grey area for other drivers.
For those over 60, an illness may make them temporarily unfit to drive, but that is not to say they should be barred from driving for the rest of their lives.
It might just be a matter of going for a cataract operation to improve their vision, or they may need to remember to take their medication beforehand.
He cites the example of an elderly person who needs to take their medication punctually otherwise they might not be alert and expose themselves to a higher risk of having an accident.
“People need to be educated on that. They might just know that if they don’t take their medication, they will be sleepy but they don’t think that they will also be driving. And if I am sleepy, it becomes dangerous for me to drive.
“Which is not to say if you have a medical problem, you stop driving. You should go for treatment for whatever ailment you have so that you are fit to drive.
“For me, the fitness to drive test is not to say they cannot drive anymore and have to wait till the day they die. There is always the grey area in between and I think we can do a lot to help the senior citizens,” says Prof Wong.
Another important factor is sleep. According to Prof Wong the quantity of sleep is not as important as the quality of sleep.
Prof Wong feels it is important for Miros, the authorities and the media to provide the necessary information to help senior drivers make decisions as to whether they should still be driving.
He recommends that senior citizens ask their doctor when they go for their medical checkup if they are still fit to drive.
Even if they have any health problems, it may be at an early stage and they may still be able to drive. So, it can’t be the same for all senior citizens across the board.
Prof Wong doesn’t believe that car accessories like wide rear view mirrors and parking sensors will make senior citizens better drivers.
“For me, if you realise you have certain difficulties in performing certain tasks, you must look at yourself and see the consequences that you might have to face if you continue driving. So, you should take some steps or precautions.
“For example, medication and treatment that is needed, but you also have to accept the fact that you will have to let go of certain tasks which are harder now such as driving long distances, and eventually, you will need to give up driving. A lot of people eventually give up driving when they are too old,” says Prof Wong.
He suggests that adult children advise their elderly parents if they feel they are no longer fit to drive or if they need to limit their driving to short distances.
According to Prof Wong, often, it is the senior citizens themselves who decide to limit their driving and eventually give up driving altogether.
Citing his own mother, Prof Wong says she has reduced her driving as she has gotten older and now only drives around the neighbourhood and no longer does night driving or long distance driving.
“When we get older, we realise that our ability to respond to certain things takes a longer time and we try to adjust ourselves. That would include no longer driving long distances. You might not be able to focus for long periods of time and you may need rest after some time. By limiting your driving, you reduce your exposure significantly and of course, the outcome.
“I believe this happens to many people. Normally, when they get older, they will drive slower, they also notice that they become more tense while driving compared to before.
“If we put an age limit to tell them they cannot drive anymore even though they can and there is a need, it will be very difficult for the senior citizens because some of them may end up depressed because their mobility is limited,” he informs.
In Malaysia, once you have a driving licence, you don’t have to retake the driving test as you get older. Hence, many senior citizens would just keep renewing their driving licence although not all of them are still driving.
Ultimately, the senior citizens and their families should gauge for themselves if they are fit to get behind the wheel.
“They themselves must assess their own fitness and the situation to know if they can still drive or if they should limit their driving. If they have the grandchildren with them, they might want to reduce their driving themselves as they don’t want to put the grandkids at risk,” he adds.