Renewed calls to force unfit elderly drivers off the road after a Perth grandmother drowned in a freak accident are also a strong wakeup call for general medical practitioners to better consider whether their elderly patients should be driving.
Prominent Brisbane injury compensation law specialist Mark O’Connor says a recent fatality in Perth where a 75 year old grandmother drowned in a freak motoring accident, has again raised the whole issue of elderly driver fitness.
Reports say an 81-year-old man accidentally hit the accelerator with the car in reverse as he and his wife the pair were together. The car crashed into the water at Fremantle Port’s South Mole one evening last week. The man managed to swim to safety but his 75-year-old wife was trapped in the submerged car and could not be rescued.
There’s been a consequent outcry with calls for elderly drivers to be forced off the roads but Mark O’Connor, a Director with Bennett & Philp Lawyers, says doctors need to be strongly reminded of their responsibilities.
He says Queensland doctors who sign medical fitness certificates for patients to drive, if they know of a patient’s underlying medical conditions, could find themselves being sued by insurers if the patient has a death or injury-causing crash afterwards.
While the health status of the Perth driver is not known, he says general medical practitioners everywhere in Australia need to be more alert and consider whether their elderly patients should be driving.
Last year there were New South Wales reports that elderly drivers were “doctor shopping” to find a GP to certify them fit to drive.
Mark believes it happens in Queensland too. In Queensland and NSW drivers aged 75 and over must have a yearly medical check-up and be certified fit to drive.
Tragedies such as the Perth fatality always generate floods of posts on social media calling for elderly drivers to be forced off the roads. There are cases every year were old people get involved in a tragedy caused by age-related driving incompetence.”
Recent high profile examples included an elderly woman driver causing a much publicised fatality in Queensland and also the recent case involving Prince Philip who continues to drive despite many questions as to his fitness.
Mark says he knows of one elderly driver whose GP certified her fit to drive even though she drove with all the skill of bumbling cartoon character Mr Magoo.
He says doctors should be fully aware of the consequences to them of certifying someone as safe to drive when the doctor knows otherwise.
In such situations doctors could be sued by CTP insurers for indemnity against claims.
“The CTP insurer would be insuring the impaired driver who went doctor shopping. The insurer could require its insured driver to cooperate and sign the necessary documents to get access to relevant medical files.
“The insurer could also, via their insured driver, get a copy of the driver’s Medicare claims history to see if the driver saw several doctors before the one in question to get the necessary medical certificate,” Mark says.
In 2015 an Ipswich doctor was brought before the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) by the Medical Board of Australia where he was fined and penalised for issuing driver licence medical fitness certificates to a patient with a history of post traumatic epilepsy.
The doctor certified the patient as fit to drive but about three weeks later while driving, the patient struck and killed a pedestrian. The tribunal accepted that the incident happened after the driver had a seizure.
Lawyers claim against third-party insurers when representing persons injured in car accidents. You could expect the insurers to drag doctors into legal actions who certify as fit to drive, elderly drivers who should not have been on the road who cause a motor vehicle accident,” Mark says.
The medical histories of car crash participants are ‘on the table’ during the settlement process so if a driver had a serious medical condition but was certified fit to drive, it could become a major issue.
“There may be some doctors who out of a sense of loyalty or compassion to their patients certify them as fit to drive but if the patient then has a crash where their health issue played a part, then insurers are likely to drag in the doctors,” he says.
Mark says in his experience with older people, they are reluctant to hand in their driver’s licenses because of the consequential loss of independence. Many won’t take their children’s advice in that regard.
I think responsible general medical practitioners become the gatekeepers in keeping an eye on their patients’ faculties and the intervening for the public good at the appropriate time,” he says.
Doctors who give a fitness certificate to an unfit elderly driver may not realise that their actions in certifying people fit to drive who have serious medical issues could ensnare the doctor in possible legal actions if there’s a crash with injury or death, Mark says.
Inevitably people will take sides and trade statistics and claims that older drivers are safer than young, inexperienced motorists or those driving with drugs in their system.
Mark says the lesson for doctors is the same regardless of the age of their patient. If then doctor believes the patient should not be on the road, they have a duty to deny a fitness certificate. Giving permission for unfit people to drive could see the doctor prosecuted.
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