• September 26, 2023

EU countries criticise ‘discriminatory’ Commission proposal aimed at older drivers

Germany and Austria have pushed back against a European Commission proposal to oblige car drivers over the age of 70 to renew their driving licence every five years, an effort aimed at stopping those no longer fit to drive from using their cars.

To reduce serious traffic accidents, the European Commission has proposed several updates to the EU’s driving licence directive, which sets a framework for rules EU countries can use in setting their national driving licence requirements.

Among other things, the Commission has proposed to include a minimum requirement of a medical self-assessment for everyone applying for a new driving licence or renewal of their existing one. A specific provision would require drivers above 70 to renew their licence more frequently.

While some countries do not yet have a medical test linked to receiving a driving licence, others already have obligatory medical checks, performed by general practitioners.

However, the proposal received substantial criticism from transport ministers of EU countries, who either see it as an unnecessary burden for elderly citizens – or, in countries that already have obligatory medical checks in place, do not want to see their standards reduced.

“We are very critical of the proposal to make health examinations compulsory from the age of 70,” German Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP/Renew) told journalists ahead of a meeting of EU transport ministers on Thursday (1 June).

“We see no reason for this and will also make our strong negative position clear here,” he added.

Similar concerns were raised by Austrian Mobility Minister Leonore Gewessler (Greens), who warned of “discrimination against older people”.

“Austria feels that we cannot agree with limiting the validity of licences to a certain age. This would reduce the mobility of these people and would not lead to a statistically significant reduction in accidents,” Gewessler said.

Countries with mandatory medical checks can continue

Other member states that already have stricter medical tests for potential drivers have pushed back against the idea of medical self-assessment, fearing that this would lead to a weakening of existing rules.

“It is essential that the ability to drive is carefully assessed by a doctor in case of diseases and when you reach a certain age,” said Czech Transport Minister Martin Kupka (ODS/ECR).

“We are concerned that self-assessment will not help us to achieve Vision Zero because the individual and not the professional judgement of the responsible experts will only base it on a subjective assessment,” he added.

Under the so-called “Vision Zero”, the EU aims to reduce the number of deadly road accidents or those leading to severe injuries to zero by 2050.

Kupka stressed that the number of traffic accidents caused by the elderly is still relatively high in Czechia and it is “hard to imagine further relaxation of the current rules”.

EU Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean responded that those that already opt for professional medical checks when issuing or renewing driving licences can continue to do so.

For those countries, “our proposal allows for the coexistence and complementarity between the current medical checks performed by general practitioners and the additional instrument that the self-assessment would provide,” she said.

Accompanied driving for 17-year-olds

Alongside the shorter period for elderly drivers, the Commission also proposed a system of digital driving licences, which should become the default for all new driving licences.

Instead of receiving a physical card, drivers would get their licence on the phone, for instance by using the EU’s new “digital wallet” currently discussed between EU countries and the European Parliament. However, those who prefer the physical version will still have the option to receive a card.

The proposals also include new provisions for young drivers, such as a mandatory “probation period” of two years during which young drivers would be subject to a zero-tolerance rule on drink-driving, regardless of national rules.

The proposal would see the EU-wide introduction of a scheme called “accompanied driving”, whereby 17-year-olds could obtain a driving licence but would have to drive accompanied by an adult in the passenger seat.

“Such a system already exists for category B licences in some member states like Germany and Austria, and has had a very positive impact on road safety,” Vălean said.

The Commission also wants to extend the scheme to so-called category C licences, which cover lorries.

“Driver shortage is an important challenge, and we should also use this directive to help to address this issue,” she said, adding that “lowering the age threshold for training may also make a career in the transport sector more attractive for young people, thus helping over time to ease the shortage of professional drivers”.

The proposal has, however, been met with scepticism by multiple ministers, most strongly by Finland’s Timo Harakka (SDP/S&D).

“Due to our long distances and sparse population, to require a parent to drive with her youth to school in the morning and back later in the afternoon is – how should I put it – it’s nonsense,” Harakka said, calling for the scheme to be made optional.

Other ministers, including those from the Netherlands and Portugal, also raised concerns about this idea, as in their views, 17-year-olds driving a lorry could pose a safety risk.

Negotiations on the file will be handed over to Spain, which takes over the rotating presidency of the EU Council in July and intends to find a common position by the end of this year.

[Edited by Sean Goulding Carroll/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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