By Samuel Smith
Published: Monday, February 15, 2021
When you’ve done something, like driving, for most of your life, having to suddenly change what once came so naturally can be a shock to the system.
But for many of us, there comes a time when the seemingly simple act of controlling a car – in reality, one of the most complicated tasks a human can perform – is not as easy, or safe, as it once was.
So what do you do when, due to age or medical complications, you start to notice changes to the way you, or someone close to you, is driving? How do you protect yourself or the one you love without stripping away confidence and independence?
A matter of safety
According to Dr Chris Moy, a GP and President of the Australian Medical Association in South Australia, the first step is simply making an appointment with your doctor.
“GPs are well-trained when it comes to talking to patients about how medical conditions can impact their driving,” Dr Moy says.
“People really shouldn’t be scared – the Fitness to Drive guidelines are actually quite supportive, and they’re there to improve quality of life and keep people safe on our roads.”
Some of the most common medical issues affecting fitness to drive include severe mental health conditions, sleep apnoea, vision impairment, diabetes-related issues and heart conditions.
But Dr Moy wants people to remember that doctors work with their patients, not against them.
“Doctors aren’t here to take your licence away because we feel like it. We understand what driving can mean to an individual,” he says.
“Most times we can support people through medical challenges and they can continue driving, but we doctors really do have a responsibility, not just to the individual, but to other road users as well.
“The rules we follow are the Fitness to Drive guidelines from Austroads, which apply nationally, and into which medical professionals have had a lot of input.
“They’re clear cut, and support people getting care. People usually understand that they’re not being punished,” he says.
Anna and Geoff’s story
Unfortunately, what happens in the doctor’s office is only a small part of the bigger picture.
Clearly, if a medical professional tells you it’s time to stop driving, it’s time to stop driving.
But what happens when a loved one passes all the tests, yet something still doesn’t feel right?
Anna and husband Geoff, both in their 70s, are in the process of altering the way they drive after Geoff began experiencing some significant health changes.
“Geoff’s skills are increasingly being compromised, and it’s raised some concerns about his driving,” Anna says.
“I do most of the driving now, but he does short trips, locally. If we go on country roads, or high-speed roads, I always drive and he’s accepted that.”
Despite Geoff passing medical tests and still legally being able to drive, Anna recognised his limitations and thought it would be best for his safety, and the safety of other road users, if he cut back on driving.
“There’s a lot of dignity in driving, but it’s important to remember it isn’t just about you – it’s about the safety of others as well,” Anna says.
Recently, the pair invested in a safer, newer car.
“Geoff was driving a big, older car, which was quite difficult for him to manoeuvre. We’ve now bought a smaller car with as much safety technology embedded [in it] as possible.”
Thinking to the future, when Geoff may have to give up driving altogether, Anna says it’s important to keep the big picture in mind.
“It’s difficult because you’re trying to string out the driver’s independence for as long as you can, but it comes back to your safety on the road, and the safety of others,” she says.
“Friends and family are starting to fill in for some of the transport, and we’re looking at taxi vouchers and community buses as alternatives.
“Sometimes it’s just accepting that you have to modify your life and your driving habits.”
While age played a large part in Geoff’s decision to reduce his driving, there are numerous medical conditions such as vision impairment, diabetes and epilepsy that can affect your ability to drive at any stage of life.
In South Australia, both you and your doctor are required to report to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles any medical conditions that could impair your ability to drive a car safely, no matter how old you are.
When diagnosed with a condition, a health care professional will assess your fitness to drive, taking into account your individual situation. Depending on how the condition affects you, you may have to take a driving assessment or stop driving, either for a period of time or permanently. For manageable conditions, a conditional licence could be considered by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles.
What RAA’s doing
RAA’s Years Ahead program offers road safety and lifestyle presentations, specifically tailored to older drivers.
Sessions cover potentially difficult topics like how and when to modify your driving, managing medical conditions, planning for future mobility, assessing your own ability behind the wheel and the impact of medications on driving.
There’s also a hugely popular Road Rules Quiz – an interactive presentation covering both general road rules and give way rules.
RAA Senior Manager of Community Engagement Ben Haythorpe understands that for many South Australians, driving is central to wellbeing. The Years Ahead program aims to help older drivers make necessary changes, no matter how challenging they may be.
“Driving is so important to the vast majority of South Australians. It keeps us connected to our families, friends and hobbies, and allows us to access essential healthcare,” he says.
“For those who find out that they can’t drive anymore, it can be devastating – especially people living in regional South Australia where access to alternatives is limited or non-existent.
“Years Ahead provides essential information to drivers about the importance of planning for the future, and sparks conversation between family and friends about how to manage a person’s changing driving ability, so it isn’t such a negative experience.”