ILC-UK, a London based think tank that focus exclusively on ageing related matters, launched a report today on older drivers. Specifically, it addresses how ideas from the ‘nudge’ agenda can be applied to the self-regulation of older drivers. 

The UK has a pretty liberal system for the licensing of older drivers. When you get to 70, and every three years thereafter, you are required to certify your fitness to drive. And the international evidence demonstrates very clearly that harsher, more restrictive systems (such as those in Finland) have no appreciable impact on road safety in as far as older drivers are concerned.

The report details how extensive, and in many respects effective, self-regulation by older drivers can be. They reduce their driving, and curb driving at certain times and in certain conditions which are likely to prove difficult for them. However, the evidence shows that they can either self-regulate too early – effectively consigning themselves to later life without a car. Or self-regulate too late, driving in later life when it would be more sensible for them not to. 

The report examines how insights from the nudge, or behavioural economics, domain could be used to support better self regulation. It contains an admirably concise and useful overview of nudge concepts and examples from a range of policy domains, and then applies these, through the lens of the latest driving research, to self-regulation. I recommend reading the report if either of these two areas – nudge theory or older drivers – interest you. 

I was invite to make a few comments at the report launch, based on my own work on older people and mobility. I restricted what I said to three main points, but I had a few other comments that, without any time constraints, I’ve outlined here: 

1. My own experience from research concurs with ‘Nudge theory’ which suggests that people experience loss more keenly than gain. That work on mobility in Ireland provided insight into this. We found that men felt very strongly the impact of loss of driving and did not see the provision of alternatives, such as community bus services, as anything approaching an acceptable alternative to driving. Many of the women we spoke to, who had never driven or whose driving careers had been significantly curtailed, gladly accepted the alternative to cars.

2. Self-regulation is related to knowledge about alternatives, and so alternatives will play a vital role in influencing older drivers. As the research shows, people frequently mention an absence of sufficient public transport in their reasoning for continuing to drive. As sociologist Harvey Molotch has argued very convincingly, replacing cars is not just about putting in place an alternative, it’s about getting people from place to place in a way that fulfills heir social dreams.

3. On the role of family in conversations about driving cessation or fitness to drive: My experience has always been that families are loathe to make the final decisions and the GPs are seen as a trusted intermediary, or messengers, who can provide an element of authority, supporting a decision that other members of the family might have already have made. The report right notes that it is not necessarily practical to enhance the formal role of GPs in this process but in the eyes of older people they clearly have an important role to play. 

4. In thinking about alternatives to driving we can combine the incentives thinking of behavioural economics with raw economic calculus. For example, ITN America – a scheme grounded in the very real economics of car ownership – uses the average cost of running a car, based on the typical mileage for people of a certain age, as a means for creating an alternative transportation scheme. With ITN America cars from those ceasing driving can be sold into the scheme, drivers can pay forward by volunteering to drive paying passengers and in so doing build up credits for the time when they too have stopped driving. ITN also sports an economically grounded approach to fares and discounts. In my own work on community transport schemes I found that free was often equated with charity, and charity was not something that all older people were keen to be seen to be relying on. Paying your own way is not always a bad thing. 

5. Finally, most behaviour change requires information and part of what older people and their families struggle with is any objective sense of their fitness to drive. Indeed, since we all over-estimate our driving skills, we could probably all do with more information that shapes the conversations we have about driving cessation, or being a better a driver. Lots of the tools and technologies exist that allow us to create, share and compare data about our habits in lots of areas -(I can compare my usage of electricity with households living in similar homes and with a similar composition, both locally and nationally). It would be good to be able to compare my driving in same way to put some objective data into conversations about it.