On March 31st 2011 I attended a seminar on Dementia and Big Society run by the Art and Humanities Research Council and the Nuffield Council on Bio-Ethics during which the debate turned, for reasons that escape me now, to the topic of Driving. I was pleased that this was raised as it is an area that causes great difficulties for people with dementia and those that are concerned about their driving abilities. From the outset we established that there is no blanket ban on people with dementia driving (true, however insurance was not mentioned and people will probably find that this comes into play if they are diagnosed with ANY illness which may affect their driving – epilepsy, fainting fits etc. Fail to inform your insurance company of a medical development and you might not be insured in the aftermath of a traffic accident if the cause of it could be attributed to that medical issue). Of course the early diagnosis lobby will need to be clear that early diagnosis means early referral to DVLA but this is not necessarily a bad thing. GPs may refer people upon diagnosis but in my experience GPS are not keen to do this as it will probably annoy their patient with dementia.
The real grey area is the one in which people undoubtedly have a memory problem (which can affect response times – and there is only one way to test your response times in the course of a normal car journey…) and their driving is becoming a ‘worry’. What are the options if they refuse to accept that they may no longer be a safe on the roads? It’s a bit like the issue of people with dementia drinking too much – if someone has access to a) money and b) an off license there is not an awful lot family can do to prevent someone drinking the days away, especially if they live alone, if that is what they want to do. So, if someone has access to car keys and a fully functioning car, what can you do? You can take the keys away from them and/or sell the car (with the appropriate paperwork from the Court of Protection of course if the car is in their name). But I frequently spoke to families about this knowing full well that they felt such action would undermine the person with memory problems or would cause too many dramas.
This may be the case but do we have a responsibility in these circumstances to other road users? At a dementia conference during another driving debate I attended years ago someone raised the responsibility of the pub landlord – apparently if they allow someone to drive away from their pub whilst over the limit they have some kind of case to answer should that person then maim or kill whilst driving. In practice I am not sure how this would/could work, pub landlords rarely being in posession of an up to date list of car users on their premises, one would imagine however, I would feel very guilty if I noticed that my husband had become an unsafe driver subsequently ploughed into a bus queue of people and I had done nothing to prevent it.
Of course there are many of us who will, in later years, use the car only for essential journeys, to and from the supermarket for example, which may be a generally quiet and well driven route. In fact someone called me once to enquire about the fairness of a driving test for her 70+ father who lived and drove only short distances in a rural area but would be tested in the middle of a busy city, that being where the test centre was. Whilst I could empathise with the predicament there is no specific driver’s license which limits people to certain roads and routes. In the meantime if you are worried about someone who is not happy with the prospect of NOT driving and won’t discuss it it seems there are only the options of serious action or no action at all. It’s just another tricky area to navigate.