Giving-up driving: is it that bad for our health?

With the launch of the Active Travel Bill law, designed to ensure local authorities prioritise walking and cycling, Wales is leading the way in assuring a healthy population; regular walking or cycling can reduce cardiovascular disease by around 30% and reduce all-cause mortality by 20%.

‎However, it is important that the Active Travel Bill considers the diverse needs of older people and improves the walking and cycling infrastructure for a group who need it most.  

Wales has the highest percentage of older people anywhere in the UK. There are estimated to be 566,400 people aged over 65 years, representing 18.5% of the population. Projections suggest that those aged 65 and over are likely to grow by 55% and make up almost 26% of the population by 2035.

However, older people today are different to those of similar age 30 or 40 years ago, and notable Welsh-born older people, such as Tom Jones (72 years), Anthony Hopkins (75 years), and Shirley Bassey (76) are representative of a new fitter, healthier, more active group of people.

Unsurprisingly, they are also more likely to need to drive than previous generations, a pattern that is set to continue, as society becomes more dispersed and people live further away from their family and jobs and at the same time hospitals and services move to the edge of towns and cities where easiest access is by car.

However, older people are still the group most likely to suffer health problems, such as eye sight deterioration, slower cognitive processing and reaction times, which can affect safe driving.

Although on average they pose no more threat than those of middle-age, many older people face the reality of having to make the decision to give-up driving. This can be a hard decision and is associated with depression and a reduction in quality of life. The loss of the car in later life is not just about reduced access of getting from A to B, but also includes a feeling of reduced independence, increased isolation and a symbol of nearing the end of life.  

However, it doesn’t have all be so negative. Increasing the number of older people walking is vitally important for health and wellbeing and for increasing social interaction. Older people who do not suffer negatively are often those that rediscover what their local area has to offer, usually by foot or by bicycle.

The Active Travel Bill can help local authorities prioritise the accessibility of walking and cycling routes, which if planned with older people in mind can help encourage active travel in later life. For example, the need for smooth, well looked-after pavements, flatter walkways, formal pedestrian crossings, with times adjusted to individual needs, and regular benches and toilets in the public realm.

Take the experience of Jane, who took part in research on driver cessation, aged 77. She gradually reduced her driving throughout later life, increasingly using public transport and more active modes of travel: “It was scary at first, I didn’t know how to go on on the bus, but I went once, then again, now I’m a regular”.

David, another participant in the research added: “I actually don’t miss my car. I don’t miss the expense, the cost went it goes wrong, the hassle of parking”.

Dr Charles MusselwhiteSome older people have enjoyed using the bus so much, it has become a weekly social outing, a kind of bus user club, and the destination, which varies each time, becomes more incidental and less important than the shared journey experience itself.

As well as policies that incorporate older people’s needs, a holistic approach to travel is needed. There are excellent courses already established that help older people improve their driving ability, but there also needs to be courses that help older people use other modes of transport, providing information and increasing confidence with walking and cycling and public transport use.

That way, older people can continue to have a happy and healthy retirement from driving and re-engage with their local environment through walking and cycling and feel confident using public transport for longer journeys. Giving-up the car needn’t always be such a bad thing and who knows we might see Tom Jones on a bus near you soon!

Charles Musselwhite is newly appointed Reader in Gerontology at the Centre for Innovative Ageing, Swansea University.

This essay by Dr Musselwhite was published in the Western Mail on Monday 1 April 2013