Retest senior drivers for road safety
Should senior drivers holding lifetime driving licences have a retest to see if they are still fit to drive? Common sense says yes. But when the idea to retest senior drivers over 70 was floated, it was immediately attacked and subsequently dropped. Should it, really?
Thailand's road accidents are among the highest in the world. How long can our rapidly ageing country postpone a policy to protect not only other people on the road but also the senior drivers themselves?
To be fair, many questions arose when the proposal to retest senior drivers over 70 emerged. For example, why 70? Are there any solid studies showing people over 70 cause more road accidents than those under 70? Shouldn't the retest be based on senior drivers' health conditions, not a specific age group?
Apart from the number of road accidents among drivers over 70, we also need to know the exact number of senior drivers with lifetime driving licences to calculate if it is worthwhile to issue new rules and regulations.
Lifetime driving licences were the order of the day when the Registration Division of the then Police Department was in charge of road safety. Their limited personnel could not cope with a large number of drivers, so they issued lifetime driving licences to reduce the workload.
It was replaced by the current system in 1988 when the issuing of driving licences became the responsibility of the Department of Land Transport.
In 2003, the Motor Vehicle Act officially abrogated lifetime driving licences but allowed those issued before October 2003 to remain effective. If the drivers who received the last batch of lifetime driving licences were 20 in 2003, they are now 36 years old. Given the average lifespan of Thai people, it is estimated that lifetime driving licences will be around for at least 35-40 years from now.
According to the Department of Land Transport, there were about 12 million lifetime driving licences in the country as of 2003. This figure might not be accurate. Since 2004, the reported number of lifetime driving licences has been higher than that. Questions then arose if the Land Transport Department has updated its database to establish the exact number of licences in the country.
To avoid ageism, we need to know if older drivers really cause more road accidents because of age-related health problems.
According to the Department of Disease Control, Ministry of Public Health, the number of road deaths are highest in the 15-24 and 50-80 age groups. Although the figures do not show correlations between ages and accidents, old age undeniably produces health problems that may affect driving ability.
A study on driving licences system development by Kasetsart University has pointed out that declining health conditions can increase the risks of accidents. For example, sudden unconsciousness, muscle weakness, bone diseases, and disorders of the nervous system. Since older people are susceptible to these symptoms due to declining health, old age may indeed contribute to higher road accidents and casualties among drivers over 50.
It is useful to take a look at other countries' measures for retesting senior drivers in their driver licensing systems.
In the European Union, drivers are required to have a retest to ensure their driving ability when they reach a specified age. In Sweden, drivers must have a retest when they are 45 and again every 10 years after that. In France, the retest is mandatory when the drivers reach 60, and again every two or five years after that.
Although Australia does not specify the age for a retest, it has special measures for drivers over 75, requiring them to have medical examinations to ensure they are in good health in accordance with state rules and regulations. They also need to have medical certificates showing they are fit to drive.
Policies must be based on sound and comprehensive information. Whether or not to retest or to revoke lifetime driving licences then depends significantly on the accurate number of lifetime driving licences and road accidents among senior drivers. Providing an accurate database is the responsibility of the Department of Land Transport.
Accuracy can be achieved by linking the database of drivers holding lifetime licences with the information in the civil registration system run by the Department of Provincial Administration. Linking the two systems will show the drivers' current status as well as ascertain the existing number of people who hold lifetime driving licences.
If the number of senior drivers with lifetime licences is very small compared to the total number of drivers and road accidents, then there will be no need to renew or revoke their driving licences. The cost-effective measure is to wait until those driving licences expire when the owners pass away.
But if the number of senior drivers with lifetime driving licences is substantial and affects road safety, then the government must consider renewing the licences. Between public safety and private citizens' rights, public safety must be the priority.
Should the government decide to revoke or renew lifetime driving licences, it must amend the Motor Vehicle Act by specifying the age of senior drivers whose driving licences need to be revoked. We recommend they should be in the 60-70 age group.
Should senior drivers want to continue driving, they must take a retest to show that they are still fit to drive before receiving a regular five-year driving licence. The retest criteria or measures should be clarified in the ministerial regulations or the operators' rule books.
The debate on the need to retest senior drivers is not new. It resurfaces every time there are efforts to address the issue of senior drivers and road safety.
Effective measures can protect senior drivers and increase road safety. Making every driver operate under the same standard rules will strengthen international confidence in Thailand's measures on road safety. Hopefully, this can improve Thailand's tattered image as one of the world's most dangerous places to drive.
Chattrika Napatanapong and Napat Pattarapisan are researchers at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.