SINGAPORE: Every day, Puran Advani drives to meet his peers for a game of tennis, goes back home for a change of clothes, has his lunch then drives to work. The 71-year-old businessman has been driving since he was 17. But in his twilight years, the ability to get behind the wheel has been of great comfort.
“As you get older, you have more time on your hands. The car gives you more independence, say if you want to go shopping (for groceries), or you want to go to the movies. A car helps to keep you mobile,” he said.
Mr Advani, like others who turn 65 years of age, had to undergo a medical examination to assess whether he was fit to be behind the wheel. The test is repeated every three years after the age of 65.
“The doctor gave me an eyesight test, and looked at my blood report and so on. I was okay, but I know some people who have had to stop driving because of eyesight or hearing problems,” he said.
Mr Advani is part of an increasing number of elderly drivers plying the roads in Singapore. According to statistics from the Traffic Police, there were about 234,000 licence holders over the age of 65 in 2014. By 2020,it said the number could increase to half a million senior drivers.
A rapidly ageing population with a corresponding increase in senior drivers could have implications for road safety. In Japan, the number of fatal crashes involving senior drivers has authorities scrambling to clamp down on the problem.
While authorities in Singapore do not publish statistics on the number of senior drivers involved in road traffic accidents, there have been reports of a number of crashes involving those over the age of 60.
In April, a 69-year-old minibus driver was arrested after an fatal accident involving a 77-year-old pedestrian.
And in September, a 70-year-old engineer was jailed for 10 days and received a five-year driving ban for making an illegal turn that resulted in a fatal accident with a motorcyclist.
“It is very real that the older you get, you are slower, your vision is poorer, your hearing might be impaired - not being able to hear the honking and so on,” said geriatrician Dr Carol Tan.
Indeed, the balance between allowing seniors to drive to maintain their independence while ensuring they remain safe on the road is something that poses a challenge for medical practitioners and even the authorities.
And experts say the time is right for Singapore to look into ways of creating a framework to help the growing population of elderly to navigate the roads.
MOST SENIORS ARE SAFE DRIVERS: EXPERTS
Dr Tan, who chairs The Good Life Co-operative, said many of her patients also come to her anxious that they are developing dementia, which could impair their driving abilities. But she said it was important to first investigate thoroughly.
“I have a lot of patients who come to see me for forgetfulness and I always tell them, until I have excluded your diabetes medicine is too strong or your blood pressure is too low, or a lack of vitamin B12, I am not going to diagnose you with dementia,” she said.
“Because once I that happens, it means there is no hope and it’s a downward decline.”
In fact, Dr Tan said 80 per cent of seniors she sees are neither frail nor sick and are generally safe on the roads. Most are also responsible enough to drive within their limitations.
“Most of them say they have given up driving along highways and just totter along within their estates,” Dr Tan said.
“They know their limits, they don’t drive alone. They drive to the supermarkets, and I think that’s okay.”
At the core of the issue is not to allow for ageist prejudice, said Dr Tan, but to allow medically fit senior drivers to maintain their independence and mobility while remaining safe on the road.
TIMELY TO HAVE COURSES FOR ELDERLY TO UPGRADE DRIVING SKILLS
For chairman of the Road Safety Council Bernard Tay, the rapid changes on Singapore roads are also something most people take for granted, but this is an issue that might impact the driving abilities of seniors.
Many of these drivers, Mr Tay pointed out, got their licences between 30 and 40 years ago, when everything, from the landscape to the Highway Code, was different. He points to the rapid uptake of personal mobility devices (PMDs) in the last few years as an example of how road conditions can change.
“There are so many more bicycles and e-scooters and many don’t comply with the rules, zig-zagging in and out,” Mr Tay said.
“If you are a senior driver, you have to understand and be aware of this. They need to be educated to be careful when seeing them on the road as the expectation is that they will not comply with the Highway Code.”
He said senior drivers also need to be able to deal with different personalities and attitudes on the road.
“Sometimes you can’t see properly, you drive slower, and you road hog and people may not be happy around you and you get stressed. Mentally you must be prepared for all these things,” he said.
With the expected increase in the number of seniors continuing to drive in their twilight years, Mr Tay said there needs to be better access to the improvement of skills. He gave the example of countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, in which non-government organisations (NGOs) conduct driving assessments for seniors to see how they react under certain conditions and teach them skills to improve.
Mr Tay said NGOs in Singapore, like the Automobile Assocation’s Academy, could help in this area, by coming up with a programme adopted from overseas with help from the government.
“Perhaps it could be defensive driving techniques tailored for seniors; they could have simulators programmed with different scenarios that senior citizens face,” he said.
“For example, the simulators could be programmed with certain impairments to test how the elderly respond. It’s all about using technology to ensure seniors are safer on the roads.”
“The reality is how do we train our elderly, even if they become a little bit older, a bit frailer,” Dr Tan said.
She said having courses designed to help the elderly would go a long way in making them safer on the road while retaining their independence.
“If you tell an older person, ‘don’t drive’, you are saying ‘no’ to his mobility. Of course he can Uber, but it’s a sense of independence and mobility. Perhaps there will be a situation where, if you don’t think you’re safe, why don’t you go for retraining,” she said.
For now, Mr Advani has no plans to give up driving, and has no reason to, having received insurance rebates thanks to his impeccably clean record. It is something he said his peers also take pride in.
“Older people are careful, while being just as good drivers,” he said.
“In fact, I think I am a better driver than my children. When they sit with me, they are quite comfortable and don’t complain about anything. When I sit with them (in the car), I feel a bit nervous,” he said with a laugh.