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Travel, transport and later life: More than just getting from A to B.

17th April 2020

Dr Charles Musselwhite is Associate Professor in Gerontology at the Centre for Innovative Ageing at Swansea University. He has a keen interest in enhancing research, policy and practice for older people and his work has seen him published in several journals and publications, as well as delivering presentations at prestigious conferences and speaking on the radio and television. Charles is also an executive committee member of the British Society of Gerontology. Ahead of the annual BSG conference beginning on the 3rd July, he discusses the importance of developing transport systems that support older people’s needs.

As an undergraduate I was inspired by the work of Roger Ingham who, along with Geoff Rolls, a PhD student of his at the time, used interviews to examine young people’s attitudes to risky driving behaviour – yes there were many boy racers who drove fast, but there were equally groups of youngsters who were safe and sensible. Those driving fast and taking risks did so basically to show off to others they were cool, linking driving to social status, roles, independence and freedom. What happened to boy racers as they age? Are there any older boy racers? Inspired by this, I set about examining how this changes across the lifecourse for my PhD at Southampton University. Yes, younger drivers showed more deliberate risk for reasons likened to status and roles, but as people aged they could display risk when they were late or in a hurry, attributing their risk to external factors. Older drivers, traditionally seen as slow and largely safe, still showed something about who they were from their driving. The old gentleman who used their retirement package to buy a Mercedes he’d always wanted and proudly showing it to me, “I worked hard all my life. My cars show how well I did. My father didn’t have a car, so I suppose I was proud and still am of having a decent car” (male, driver, aged 85), the older lady who helped her daughter by being able to help with the grandchildren, identifying her as helpful and giving her a sense of purpose, “I can help the family out by collecting and taking my granddaughter to school. Without the car, I couldn’t do that” (female, driver, aged 70) and becoming a centre of the community and the ex-lorry driver who gave lifts to (even) older people in his local community which stopped him being bored and kept his mind active.

Working with different age groups and studying their mobility made me realise transport is about people first and foremost and that’s the focus I maintain to be still true today.

Ageing is largely a big success; people living longer than ever before is something to be truly proud of in society. Along with it comes renewed expectations about later life, including increased mobility expectations. Older people today are far more likely to be behind the wheel of a car compared with previous generations. In 1975/76 in England, only 15% of over 70s held a driving licence – this has increased to just over 65% now. Even though mobility for work and for commuting reduces, journeys for leisure activities increase in later life. Journeys to visit friends and family and for general leisure purposes fall from around 75 onwards and it is these journeys that are really missed in later life; 12% of over 60s want to visit family more often, with 58% of them stating transport or journey is the major barrier to doing this.

One way of course to reduce the issues with giving up driving is to help older people continue driving later on in life, but are older drivers safe to do this?  Although road traffic collisions occur in later life, largely this is due to frailty; older people are more likely to be a statistic from a crash or collision. Hence, on the whole, despite unfavourable changes in physiology, cognition and eyesight coupled with ageing, older people are able to compensate for these changes and drive relatively safely. Despite what the papers might say, research shows that testing of older drivers has little effect on road safety. Countries that have more stringent testing, for example employ cognitive or on-road safety tests, have no fewer collisions among older people or the population as a whole. In fact, those places with the most relaxed licensing procedures, UK and Sweden have self-declaration of health over the age of 70 years for example, actually have fewer collisions among older people than countries with more stringent licencing.

Transport is always seen as just something that happens, something that isn’t rocket science, something that is someone else’s responsibility to sort out. Consequently, it is often seen as an add-on, something to be sorted after the event. We need to start taking transport more seriously, to see it central to our lives, to link it more closely with mobility, health, wellbeing, and as a protective factor in isolation and loneliness. When it gets the attention it deserves, we can start thinking about designing a transport system to support older people’s needs and help them stay connected to the things that matter to them.

Dr Charles Musselwhite

Associate Professor in Gerontology
Centre for Innovative Ageing at Swansea University