A review is needed of licensing procedures for elderly drivers

The deaths of five passengers when a truck driven by a 71-year-old hit a minibus should be a cue to ask if we have the right checks for the growing number of ageing road users

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 1:43am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 1:43am

In 42 years behind the wheel, a court was told, self-employed driver Cheung Man-leung had received only five traffic violation tickets before his truck slammed into a minibus in Pat Heung last December, killing five passengers. Deputy magistrate Bina Chainrai said it showed the potential of road accidents to cause immense suffering, including for Cheung, who was under psychiatric treatment as a result of it.

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She sentenced him to two years’ jail for dangerous driving causing death and another count of causing grievous bodily harm, saying that he drove into a busy intersection when the traffic light was still red. Three things set this case apart. Of those five tickets, two were for failing to comply with traffic signals as recently as last year. Cheung is 71. Sentencing reports suggested he needed extra time for cognitive tasks and did not have good hand-eye coordination.

This is not to question the licensing of older drivers. But it raises a little-discussed aspect of ageing societies such as ours – the increasing number of older drivers on the roads. In Britain, for example, there are six million over-70 drivers compared with less than a million 35 years ago, and 80 per cent of 60-69-year-olds hold licences. In Hong Kong private car ownership per capita may be half that of Singapore, but government advisers have said rapid growth must be contained to alleviate congestion. There is no doubt that the growth in the number of older drivers on our roads will accelerate.

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Licences for over-60s are valid for only three years and, after 75, renewal requires a physical exam including a vision test. There is no gold standard. Britain relies on voluntary disclosure of medical issues for three-yearly renewals until a mandatory examination at 80. The state of New South Wales in Australia requires an annual medical and eye test after 75, or a licence is suspended. Perhaps Cheung’s case and the ageing of drivers should prompt our officials to review elderly driver licensing. This should include the rigour and frequency of medical tests, and whether there should be separate eye exams by specialists.