I’m a terrible traveller. I mean a really terrible traveller. Having suffered with chronic motion sickness for decades, I’m a liability to myself (and the surrounding upholstery) if anyone else is at the wheel. As such, this rules out flying, taking the train, using taxis or even accepting lifts.
It’s why my car is such a critical component of my life. As a criminal defence and road traffic lawyer with cases all over the country, it’s crucial for work. Meanwhile, the car is key to leisure time: the 1,050-mile drive is the only way I can get to my home in the South of France.
So I’d be bereft if my licence was ever taken away (and as Mr Loophole, I don’t think it would inspire confidence in my clients either!). Yet every day countless so-called ‘older drivers’ – I’m 62 – lose their licence and so their lifeline.
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Why people lose their driving licences
For some it’s because they’ve committed a road traffic offence. But, as I’m seeing more frequently among my own clients, for many others it’s because the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) has taken the view that such motorists are no longer fit to be on the road.
There's actually no reason why older drivers should be seen as more dangerous than so-called 'boy racers'. Research by Swansea University found drivers aged 70 are involved in three to four times fewer accidents than 17 to 21-year-old men.
But there seems to be a disproportionate number of older people who are surrendering their licence. Almost 22,500 over-70s had their licences revoked last year for failing to meet required medical standards.
Losing a driving licence is a catastrophic event for an older person – it means losing the dignity of independence. The idea of being a burden to family and friends is awful. Public transport isn’t always easy or convenient – or it may be a worrying prospect at night. That’s why it can be such a life-changing event.
On the other hand, plenty of motorists have healthy lifestyles, they’re active, they are working longer and medicine itself is improving all the time. And it seems so unfair to have their health called into question when they look after themselves. (In my case that means starting each day with 120 press-ups and 200 sit-ups, walking mile after brisk mile with my Staffie, George, and sticking to a self-righteously healthy – and sometimes unappetising – diet.)
But there is a balance to be struck. No one has an innate right to drive. Which is why it’s so important to be mindful of how you feel before you fire up the engine. Is, for example, that touch of rheumatoid arthritis affecting your physical reaction time on the road? Think about addressing health issues with medical help rather than just claiming a right to drive.
When the DVLA steps in
Remember, you don’t have to be involved in a road traffic accident for the DVLA to make a move. A GP, friend or family member may report their concerns. After which the DVLA will request consent for your medical records – and then decide whether to grant you a new licence, a shorter one or even have it revoked.
Of course, not everyone reported to the DVLA is unfit to drive. You can appeal, but the burden of proof is on you to prove you are safe at the wheel.
I’ve had countless cases involving older clients who have received a letter from the DVLA, or who indeed have already had their licence revoked, and which we have gone on to successfully appeal. These situations are often triggered by an anxious (or over-anxious) relative.
Like the gentleman who came to see me recently after his daughter reported him to the DVLA, since she was convinced her father wasn’t ‘as sharp as he used to be’. Meeting the client helps form a view – we’ll go through their personal situation and have a candid discussion about their health. We may also call in independent experts to conduct a medical assessment of the client. By doing this, it becomes clear whether there is a genuine cause for concern or whether someone faces losing their licence because of the misplaced anxiety of others.
Disclosing health conditions to the DVLA
If the DVLA contacts you over concerns about your driving, never ignore it. Otherwise you’ll be driving without a licence and insurance. And if you’re involved in an accident the consequences are likely to be very serious.
Equally, don’t just roll over and hand back the keys, if you think it's an unfair assessment. You should always get legal advice on how to go forward.
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Have your eyes tested regularly
As we get older, there are obvious ways to stay safe on the road. Regular eye tests are imperative: an estimated 2,000 drivers in the UK were involved in road crashes due to poor vision. Motorists may not realise their eyesight has deteriorated through age – for example, because of glaucoma.Hearing should be checked, too.
The importance of eye tests for motorists
If you take any medication, read the instructions. It’s no defence, after an accident, to say you didn’t look at that bothersome leaflet with the tiny print that warns against driving or about drowsiness as a side effect.
Before you start driving
When you set out on a journey, just as you make sure your petrol tank is full, check your bladder is empty. Sorry to bring this up, but it’s astonishing how many older people tell me the reason they were speeding was because they got ‘caught short’ and needed to get to the nearest loo.
5 simple tips to keep your car healthy
And what about drink? I am constantly hearing from friends as well as clients how an iron constitution and 40 years' devotion to a good malt has made them immune to that one extra after-dinner whisky. I’m afraid the courts won’t buy that one either.
Avoid morning-after drink driving
Don't drive tired
Driving can, of course, be exhausting – it’s something I’ve noticed myself as I get older (despite those damned press-ups). If you’re feeling tired when you’re behind the wheel, stop for what’s known as a coffee nap.
Drink a strong coffee then settle down in the car for a quick snooze. The caffeine’s stimulating effect kicks in about 30 minutes after drinking your espresso. So you wake up having had the benefits of a short sleep while your body continues to feel the effects of the caffeine hours later.
The health benefits of coffee
Don't lose confidence on the road
Perhaps one of the key things I find among the older drivers who come to see me are those whose alleged offences have arisen simply because they have lost confidence on the road. I’m not surprised. There’s so much rage and impatience on our congested transport network. Meanwhile, innovations such as smart motorways mess with speed limits while giving little information. The motorist in turn reacts by driving over-cautiously, not realising this could get them into trouble.
So if you’re overtaking, for example, have the confidence to complete the manoeuvre and get back into the nearside lane. Lane-hogging can net three penalty points and a £100 fine.
Could an IAM course improve your driving skills?
Slower isn’t better
Don’t think there’s a virtue in driving slowly, either. I once represented a chap for speeding in his Porsche – as witnessed by the two elderly ladies he overtook. It turned out they were the ones going too slowly (30mph) because they hadn’t observed there was a 60mph speed limit. My client was acquitted but the women could have easily been prosecuted for driving without consideration for others.
The joy of driving
Aside from the convenience, driving can be one of life’s fabled great pleasures. I love setting off on a sunny day with the roof down, the wind troubling my (yes, grey) hair, and George curled up on the front seat, as a country road unfurls in front of me. The freedom and sense of adventure remains exquisite. I’m master of my own destiny and since I’m at the helm I can be sure that my breakfast won’t be making an unwelcome reappearance.
The world's greatest road trips
If that isn’t worth making sure you keep your licence, then I don’t know what is.
Nick Freeman was talking to Angela Epstein