When the Duke of Edinburgh retired from public service after seven decades in 2017, he reportedly planned to spend time painting, driving his horse and cart and relaxing at the royal residences. But recently, he lost some of his hard-earned independence when he voluntarily surrendered his driving licence – weeks after his car overturned in Sandringham, Norfolk. Miraculously, the 97-year-old escaped unhurt but the Kia driver, with whom he collided with on the A149 near the Queen’s private estate, suffered a broken wrist.
And while Prince Philip no doubt has numerous chauffeurs at his disposal, many older people feel a loss of freedom – and the psychological effects – when they retire from the road.
Figures show that 5.3million of the 39million driving licence holders are over 70, according to data released last November by the Drivers and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). Dr Charles Musselwhite, associate professor of gerontology at Swansea University’s Centre for Innovative Ageing, said older people are often reluctant to give up driving because they do not want to burden family by asking for help. Many take pride in their independence and ability to go food shopping and attend hospital appointments.
Dr Musselwhite said the people who successfully give up driving without the negative side effects are those who plan in advance. A study of current and former drivers aged between 55 and 101 found that the majority want to be on the road for as long as they are able to do so safely.
Under current rules, our driving licences expire when we reach 70. Drivers must actively make a declaration every three years that they are fit to drive. As part of this, older drivers must confirm that they meet the minimum eyesight requirement by reading a number plate 20metres (65ft) away. However in late 2017, the Association of Optometrists called for compulsory eye tests every 10 years after one in three eye doctors reported seeing patients who continue to drive despite their vision falling the below the legal standard.
Dr Musselwhite, who led the study, said: “There is tentative evidence that more stringent eye testing might help but in terms of cognitive tests and on-road tests – people want older people to do a driving test again – but it doesn’t seem to make any difference from the evidence we’ve seen. “It’s hard to find objective tests which sorts good from poor driving.” With an ever-growing population and more people living longer, many of us could be still be behind the wheel way into our 90s – much like Prince Philip. Dr Musselwhite said: “Many haven’t used public transport for years so you can see them finding it difficult to give up driving .”