Jenni Murray

Jenni Murray

Am I becoming a nervous driver?

It’s natural to be anxious on the road, says our columnist, especially when you consider the behaviour of other drivers.

It started as spring began to turn to summer. I was nervous behind the wheel for the first time ever.

My friend Sally and I had booked dinner for 8pm at our favourite restaurant. Sally and I are drivers. She’s 74 and I was about to become 73 on the night in question, and we had no qualms about setting off and crossing London. Me from the north, her from the south and meeting somewhere in the middle. 

We’ve travelled all over the country together for years. We’ve always felt safe. We checked our eyesight and speed of reactions when licence renewal was demanded by the DVLA as we hit our seventies. No problems to report. 

The days had not yet begun to lengthen to any great extent so our journey to the restaurant would take place under a darkening sky.

It was pouring with rain. There were three road closures on my route, but I felt confident about the diversions and was convinced I would get there on time. It soon became clear I would be late. I stopped the car and called Sally to warn her. She’d been about to call me. She had the same trouble on her route. We’d just do our best. 

We arrived at around the same time – hungry, tired and shaking a little. “That was awful,” said Sally. “I’ve never felt scared behind the wheel before, but tonight I did.” I never thought I’d feel nervous behind the wheel of any car, let alone my lovely new convertible Mini Cooper, but I had to confess I too had felt anxious. 

“God,” said Sally. “Is it the dark, is it the rain, is it the diversions or could it possibly, horror of horrors, be that we’re getting old?”

For just a moment my stomach knotted.

Could she be right? Could we no longer cope with the demands of concentration and physical fitness presented by driving a car?

Neither of us drove motors designed for speed. My Mini and her Renault Five were suited to our view that a car was not for racing, but for getting safely from A to B.  

We had the right kind of transport, the right attitude and had checked that we were physically and emotionally fit for the job, so why this sudden onset of nerves? It is, I’ve found, not at all uncommon. The Department of Transport has no statistics on nervousness, but I’ve heard from a number of friends and colleagues worried that maybe their reactions are not fast enough. 

As far as accidents go, there are far fewer among 70- to 75-year-olds than among 17- to 24-year-olds. The rate does increase a bit between 78 and 85 and then rises sharply for those aged 86-plus, so it’s our responsibility to keep checking our fitness to drive. The latest figures show there are 5.6 million older people with a full driving licence in Britain.  

There is no age at which we should give up as long as we’ve told the truth to the DVLA, are able to read a number plate 20 metres away (five car lengths) and have not been diagnosed with dementia or any other condition that might affect our cognition.  

I’m sure neither Sally nor I could bear to give up driving.

The car has always been important to us both in giving us freedom to go where we want to go whenever we choose. It means invaluable independence and, even after all these years, it’s still a pleasure. 

As for the nervousness we felt that night – and numerous times since – I put it down to lack of trust in other drivers. They get worse and worse. Driving up the M1 the other day I was in the middle lane having just overtaken when a flashy lad undertook me just as I was signalling to move into the inner lane. Don’t they teach that it’s illegal to undertake any more? 

Then there’s the impatience of everyone around me. I’m carefully sticking to the 20mph limit in the city and I’m deafened by the hooting horns behind me trying to hurry me along. A few chosen words screeched out of my open window have become common practice. Sometimes they even look shocked at such language coming from a furious elderly lady, but they still can’t wait to overtake. Hope they get done for speeding! 

Jenni Murray

Written by Jenni Murray