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Tragic cases highlight potential dangers of elderly drivers

Driving with Dementia

One of the UK’s leading experts on care and capacity law says two recent cases involving fatalities caused by elderly drivers highlight the real and potential dangers of someone continuing to drive when they have been diagnosed with dementia or are simply too infirm to get behind the wheel.

Sofia Tayton, a partner in Lodders’ Private Client department and head of the firm’s care and capacity team, explains:

“Recently, an 85-year-old man was jailed and ordered to pay £20,000 after being found guilty of killing a young mother with his car in West Hampstead. The retired stockbroker lost control of his 1982 Mercedes and mounted the pavement in November 2012. He was travelling at 54mph after mistaking the accelerator for the brake.

“In another recent case, an 85-year old woman caused a fatal head-on crash in Kings Lynn when she drifted onto the wrong side of the road, hitting a car driven by an 80-year old man, who later died from his injuries.

“Both cases reinforce that families and friends of elderly drivers have a responsibility to monitor their driving skills and capabilities, and stop them from getting behind the wheel if they have the potential to be a danger to other road users as well as pedestrians.”

Commenting on the West Hampstead case, the judge said: “The sentence I am about to pass is not in order to make an example of you, but it must be understood that old age cannot be seen as any excuse or mitigation for dangerous or even careless driving. An elderly driver who knows or should acknowledge that he or she is losing his or her ­faculties is no less a danger than a drunken driver who knows the same.”

The judge of the case heard in Norwich Crown Court said: “This is a tragic case where there are no winners and all are losers and demonstrates the importance of older drivers to exercise responsibility and recognise when their driving skills fall off to the extent that they present a danger to other road users.”

The difficulty of speaking to an elderly relative

Speaking about the difficulties of stopping an elderly relative from driving, Sofia explains that recently the daughter of one of her clients sought her advice about her elderly mother: “I really felt for a client recently when her daughter came in for advice on how to stop her from driving.

“My client had been diagnosed with dementia a few years ago – the daughter was so worried about her mother’s safety on the road that she had taken to hiding the car keys.

“This was causing my client to distrust her carers, as she thought they were taking the keys and going off in her car. It was all a bit of a mess,” she says.

Notifying the DVLA

The legal position is straightforward – a driver must tell DVLA if they have been diagnosed with dementia. They can be fined up to £1,000 if they don’t, and they may be prosecuted if they are in an accident as a result of their illness.

Notification should be sent to DVLA by completing and submitting form CG1, which asks for details about a driver’s GP, consultant, clinics, medication and care that they receive, with the aim being to collect information from the medical professionals involved.

At this stage, a driver’s GP may have already advised them to stop driving, simply to allow assessments to be carried out. On receipt of the medical reports, DVLA may then also ask the driver to take a driving assessment – including an interview and tests of reaction time and vision, plus an on-road session.

If DVLA decide that the driver is safe to continue on the road, they will issue a licence that is valid for a limited period, after which time further assessments will need to be carried out. If DVLA decide that the driver is not safe to continue, they must surrender their licence. There is an appeal process, however the driver cannot use their car while it is ongoing.

Sofia says: “Licences may be surrendered voluntarily – indeed many people with dementia choose to stop driving because they begin to find it stressful.

“They get lost even on roads they know well; begin to misjudge speed or distance; find themselves straying across lanes or hitting kerbs; feel at greater risk of having an accident; or cause passengers to have concerns.

“Giving up driving – which is equivalent to giving up independence – is not easy. However, the impact of dementia on memory, reactions, hazard perception and the ability to perform a number of tasks at the same time means that the ability to drive will be lost at some point. It is possible for a driver’s GP, or anyone concerned about a driver’s ability, to contact DVLA in writing and ask for a medical investigation.

“This is perhaps a position of last resort though, as it would be far better for the driver to be encouraged to accept their condition, to comply with the law, and to explore alternatives to driving,” she said.

“The nature of dementia is such that people with it may lack insight into their own condition and limitations. Having regular, calm and sensible discussions about driving, and perhaps suggesting a driving assessment, has to be the starting point.”

The Alzheimer’s Society offers some helpful guidance:

Sofia specialises in Care Funding, Mental Capacity, Court of Protection and Powers of Attorney, and is an associate member of the Society of Trust & Estate Practitioners and a full professional member of Solicitors for the Elderly. She is also joint regional co-ordinator of the Warwickshire and Worcestershire branch of the Solicitors for the Elderly and is appointed to the Office of the Public Guardian’s Panel of Deputies.

For more information on this story or for information on any other Care and Capacity matter, please contact Sofia Tayton on 01789 206151 or drop her an email.

Sofia Tayton, Lodders Solicitors

Sofia Tayton, Lodders Solicitors

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