It is quite striking how one’s perspective changes with age. When I was a young driver I wanted all those old fogies in front of me banned from the road for blocking my way. How dare they be so slow to move off when the lights change, don’t they know some of us have places to go and things to do.
Now in my 70s I tend to be much more understanding of a safe and steady driving style. It’s true: where you stand on an issue tends to depend on where you sit, in this case literally.
The long-running debate on whether there should be an age cap for commercial drivers was reignited last week when several pedestrians were run down and injured by a taxi driven by an 85-year-old. Data previously put to the Legislative Council in 2021 showed more than half the taxi drivers in Hong Kong were aged 60 or above and close to 10 per cent were 71 or above.
Commissioner for Transport Rosanna Law Shuk-pui recently told the media the number of traffic accidents involving older motorists was not particularly higher than the number involving younger people.
All drivers above 70 must undergo a health check in order to renew their licences, every three years for private motorists and some commercial drivers, annually for others. (The requirement is more strict for bus captains). The question is whether the regime should begin at an earlier age – say 60 – whether it should be more frequent (perhaps annual after 70) and whether the existing check is thorough enough. Common sense suggests most drivers in need of a health certificate would in practice consult their local doctor. That person would be more familiar with the driver’s medical history, which is a positive, but by definition the latter would be a regular source of income for the doctor’s practice which could give rise to a generous assessment.
A Hong Kong University Professor in Social Work and Social Administration told a radio show last week that to be effective the health check should cover three areas: physical, mental and cognitive. That would require a general practitioner plus an occupational therapist and a geriatrician unless the GP had those specialist skills which most do not. That would argue for the creation of dedicated centres where all such skills could be found to provide a “one-stop” service, but seems rather elaborate, and certainly excessive for casual drivers.
Some have even suggested we should introduce a “drop dead” date like we have for vehicles (18 years for buses, 15 years for other commercial vehicles). Should people be allowed to drive at all after a certain age (say 85).
In principle I am not in favour of such a proposal: we should be focused on objective criteria such as the eyesight, speed of reflex, blood pressure, overall health etc. Would it be reasonable to deny an individual the pleasure of driving even if his performance in all these aspects was up to the mark?
Conversely, the fact that some seniors in their 70s or 80s drive taxis because of the need to make a living is not an argument for less strict health checks. We should not be relaxing safety standards which protect the public at large in order to address a social problem experienced by an unfortunate few.
Legislative Councillor Michael Tien Puk-sun suggested the penalties for dangerous or careless driving causing death or injury should be made much stiffer so as to deter people from getting behind the wheel if they had any doubts about their own health situation. I do not generally favour this proposal either. People won’t normally put themselves at risk and most would also have enough community spirit to not deliberately endanger others. But an exception should be made for cases where the driver needlessly increased the chances of an accident by consuming alcohol or drugs, or was focused on monitoring mobile phones. Our accident rate is high enough without people taking deliberate steps to make them worse.
Underlying the whole debate is the question of why so many of our young people seem unwilling to be taxi drivers. But is this in fact the case? Every Uber trip I have arranged has been provided by a young driver in his own car, clean and well-maintained, even fragrant. Polite door-to-door quick service by the most direct route for an agreed fare. So it’s not the concept of providing transport for hire that is the problem, it is the idea of an approved vehicle for a set fare, and a system controlled by a small number of licence holders.
An obvious remedy to meet a labour shortfall like this is to increase pay. But the present arrangement of daily (or shift) hire leaves the driver at the mercy of market vagaries. Splitting the existing industry into a number of major players, each operating a fleet of vehicles and hiring drivers with attractive salaries and benefits, would require an extensive overhaul and restructuring. That would take many years to implement and involve confronting powerful vested interests. With all due respect to Law, I cannot see the government attempting such a bold move, nor would I think it wise. Far more likely is a sensible tightening of the health checks so as to ensure all drivers are reasonably alert and capable. That, plus finding a way to regularize Uber, might nudge the market into sorting itself out over the long term.
Or perhaps the young Uber drivers may switch to taxis when they are older. After all, perspective changes with age.