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Prince Philip’s driving lesson

Pursuits | By Alan Judd

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh at Hillsborough Castle during a visit to present 100 Gold Award Certificates to Duke of Edinburgh's Award participants.

Prince Philip's crash earlier this year has given oldies a bad name, young drivers are far worse, says Alan Judd

A friend, thinking of exchanging her 2016 Volvo XC70 for an all-electric BMi3, was quoted £980-£1500 to insure the latter. She pays £760 for the Volvo’s insurance.

There could be several reasons for this difference. The BMW would cost more to replace and might cost more to repair – its carbon fibre body means that one good bash on a wing might entail replacing the entire shell. Also, being electric, it offers instant, high-torque acceleration, thus making accidents perhaps more likely.

But I suspect there’s another – powerful but unstated – reason behind all these: my friend is 85.

Accident rates for older people make news when some unfortunate nonagenarian – not just Prince Philip – drives the wrong way down a motorway slip road, mounts a pavement or crashes.

We then read that accident statistics form a U-shaped pattern, with the under-25s at highest risk, a decrease through middle age, and then an increase in old age. But it’s an incomplete U because the old-age increase reaches nowhere near as high as the under-25 rate. According to the RAC, 6 per cent of licence-holders are over 75 and account for 4.3 per cent of deaths and serious injuries, whereas 25 per cent of licence-holders are under 25 and account for 13 per cent of deaths and serious injuries.

Before we oldies take comfort from this, however, we should reflect that, in terms of accidents per driver, these figures also make us slightly worse than the young.

Should we be surprised? Driving involves manipulating a complex machine at speeds beyond anything for which evolution has prepared us, calibrating a multitude of visual signals as well as direction, velocity, distance and stability. We know that, as we age, our physical and mental co-ordination declines.

Older drivers are demonstrably more fallible when quick decisions and reactions are required. Younger drivers have more accidents attributable to speed and loss of control, while older drivers more often come a cropper through misjudging the speed of oncoming vehicles. Thus, you’re more likely to be hit by a younger driver and more likely to hit an older one.

Total accident figures may flatter the elderly by not reflecting the fact that they drive fewer miles, spend more time on familiar local roads, avoid busy periods and often don’t drive at night. Yet low-mileage drivers of all ages, including the young, have a higher accident rate than the high-milers – among whom those who drive for a living are the safest.

But high-milers drive mostly on motorways, where the accident rate is lower anyway, because everyone’s going in the same direction.

Yet the physical consequences of accidents are often more severe for the elderly, so they are more likely to enter the deaths-and-serious-injuries statistics.

So, what to make of it all? One authoritative study, Dr Graham Hole’s The Psychology of Driving, suggests that age alone does not appear to be a reliable predictor of accidents (nor, surprisingly, does visual impairment). We should take comfort from that.

But still you don’t meet many 80-year-old fighter pilots. Where motor skills are concerned, it’s undeniable that the young do everything better – except, perhaps, recognise their limitations. In fairness, they’re still practising, whereas older drivers have had time to learn self-control and identify weaknesses.

So perhaps it’s time insurers sought a more sophisticated understanding of the assumptions and reporting bias underlying accident statistics.

If premiums were more precisely calibrated with individual circumstances – how, where, when and how much someone drives – it would be fairer for everyone. And maybe cheaper for old and young alike.

This story was from July Issue issue. Subscribe Now