Helen Martin: We’re asleep at the wheel over elderly drivers

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OUR ageing population and the soaring dementia rate is never off the political agenda. The primary focus of attention is how society can provide care for the elderly who need it and how that’s going to be financed. But there are other spin-off problems which haven’t made it on to the priority list, probably because they might become a controversial hot potato.

One major elephant in the room is increasingly elderly drivers whose physical or mental impairments can place them, and others, in danger.

Red squirrels are in conflict with their grey cousins

Red squirrels are in conflict with their grey cousins

A recent case in Aberdeenshire saw two women in their early 50s seriously injured to the extent where both are still unable to work, or even walk unaided, three months later. Their injuries were caused by an 80-year-old lady who confused the brake with the accelerator and lost control of her car.

She was convicted of careless driving, rather than the original charge of dangerous driving, fined £400 and had eight points on her licence, but was not banned from driving, nor was she made to re-sit her test. At least that case went to court.

In a local incident in my area, an elderly lady failed to stop before crossing a main road and bus route despite stop signs and painted road warnings. Without braking, she drove straight across, hitting a car that was travelling along the main road, damaging both its front and rear doors. Fortunately, no-one was hurt, but the lady didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation.

When the other driver, concerned about general safety as well as that of the lady herself, phoned 101, he was told that with no injuries involved, the police had no role to play. It was simply left to insurance.

If the other vehicle had been a cyclist or motorbiker, or possibly even a pedestrian, the outcome could have been very different.

Both these cases illustrate the terrible complexities of weighing up road safety against the needs of the elderly to be mobile and a reluctance to revoke their licences and curb their freedom and independence, not to mention the fear of new legislation being considered age-prejudiced.

In my mid-60s, I’m certainly not ageist. Will I be able to drive for another decade? I hope so, but I can’t guarantee it.

In the UK, once a driver reaches 70, they have to submit a self-declaration of fitness to be behind the wheel. Physically, that’s straightforward. But the problem with cognitive and age-related mental deterioration is that the individual may not even be aware of their failings. In several European countries and some states in the US and Australia, re-testing or other limitations apply to elderly drivers.

Along with the demographics of our ageing population, we also have denser traffic, must be more alert to cyclists, and have more fast motorways and dual carriageways. Driving, at any age, is more difficult.

I know people in their late 80s who are on-the-ball and good drivers. I also know people who have had developing dementia since their 50s. I know families who stopped their parents or grandparents driving, and elderly people with no family to support or advise them.

What I don’t know is whether any limitation on elderly drivers is a good idea or not. But surely, it’s something that must be discussed.

It’s humans that do the most damage

PINK salmon, native to the Pacific and parts of Russia, are making their way into Scottish waters and competing with traditional Scottish salmon. Now fishing authorities are encouraging anglers to kill them in order to protect native fish.

It’s a repeat of the grey/red squirrel conflict. We know the world is changing in terms of climate, environment, and how different species cope. That contributes to migration and evolution, just as it did to homo sapiens’ development.

There’s a strong argument for our species (mankind) to stop interfering in nature and trying to play God, and instead simply let animals evolve to find their own levels. As David Attenborough said, the greatest invasive and destructive species on the planet is human beings. We are so vicious and war-like we even cull ourselves!

Male primary teachers help boys ‘be boys’

SCOTTISH Education Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville is absolutely right in encouraging more men to work in childcare and teach in primary schools.

But it’s not all about the current recruitment crisis. It’s about equality in the classroom for pupils as much as for teachers.

The old phrase “boys will be boys” is justified. At primary age they often are more boisterous than girls and often develop socially and academically at different rates.

Of course, it’s fair to have one set of rules for all pupils but, as a headmaster once told me, some female teachers especially those who aren’t parents or only have daughters, can be tough on boys.

And some boys, especially those without present fathers, need male role models inspiring them and playing a regular part in their lives.

For many years primary teaching has been seen as a typical career for women. Equality cuts both ways.

Incompetence is so easy-PC

A QUARTER of City of Edinburgh Council ex-employees still have access to council computer systems. Personal information from education, social work and other departments is at risk, and that’s not because of clever hackers but because of the council’s mismanagement and poor internal communication. Our officials (in this case, not our councillors) are shamefully incompetent.