Coroner urges elderly motorists’ fitness to drive testing after tragic crash claims baby’s life

Senior women sitting behind the wheel in a car

A coroner has urged elderly motorists to have their fitness to drive tested after a 74-year-old with undiagnosed dementia caused a crash that killed a baby. 

Simon Milburn, a coroner from Cambridge, plans to write to the Department for Transport with his concerns after a five-month-old boy, Louis Thorold, died in his pram when then 73-year-old Shelagh Robertson, veered into the path of a van, forcing it onto the pavement where it hit the baby and his mother.

Ms Robertson was driving her Mazda after a shopping trip to Tesco when she caused the crash on the A10 at Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire on January 22, 2021.

An inquest in Huntingdon was told that the van driver, who was driving within the 50mph limit, had no time to react.

Ms Robertson was prosecuted for causing the death by careless driving, but after a trial at Cambridge Crown Court last year, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The jurors in the case were informed that the pensioner was suffering from dementia, which was undiagnosed at the time.

By law, motorists aged 70 or over are required to renew their driving licence every three years. Ms Robertson renewed hers in May 2017 as she approached her 70th birthday, an inquest was told on Wednesday.

This was completed online, and she stated in her application that she was medically fit to drive.

Robertson’s three-year licence was extended by a year due to the Covid pandemic. This meant that the expiration date was June 2021, after the crash.

Cambridgeshire area Coroner, Mr Milburn, said: “The obvious way around that is for someone to design a process where there’s a formal examination at an appointed time.”

To renew their licence at age 70, Mr Dollard said that the current system requires drivers to answer 21 medical questions with yes or no answers.

He goes on to say that if Ms Robertson had been “checked by a doctor and the doctor had identified there was the onset of dementia, then (she) may well have not had (her) licence renewed and we wouldn’t have had an incident like we had in 2021.”

Mr Milburn added: “How practical and whether there are resources to put such a system in place is not for me.”

Sergeant Mark Dollard, of Cambridgeshire Police, told the inquest: “The process for renewing your licence is entirely reliant on honesty and awareness.

“If you don’t have either of them, there’s a flaw that can be exploited.”

Chris Thorold, Louis’s father, stated that there is a “gaping hole in the system – that you can self-certify.”

“Quite a lot of European countries have these rules in place that require medical examinations,” he said.

In a statement read to the inquest, Rachael Thorold, Louis’s mother, said: “Our cognitive health and reaction time changes with time and this needs to be objectively checked.

“Mrs Robertson hadn’t picked up her significant cognitive decline.”

Rachael struggled to get pregnant for five years leading up to baby Louis being born through IVF.

Having sustained numerous traumatic injuries, Mr Milburn concluded Louis died as the result of a road traffic collision. 

He also plans on writing to Cambridgeshire County Council to request the speed limit at the crash site to be lowered to 30mph and for safety barriers to be installed. 

2 thoughts on “Coroner urges elderly motorists’ fitness to drive testing after tragic crash claims baby’s life”

  1. Michael John Harper

    The Government needs to look at this immediatly. As an experienced ADI I am constantly being asked by elderly people, who have had medical conditions, to take them out for an assessment drive. The Doctor asks them to contact an Instructor. For some Years now I stay clear of offering help because if I say ‘you’re ok to drive’ and they then have a problem on the road, then it could potentially land me in trouble. It’s just not worth doing assessment drives due to litigation. So now we have lots of elderly drivers who are on our roads unsafe, because of the lack of a test, say at the age of 70. It’s not just the elderly either. Anyone who has had a medical condition is often referred to an Instructor by the Doctor or the Mental Health Officer etc etc. Even if the Instructor does not give written authorisation that the Driver is safe, I believe the act of payment to the Instructor, could potentially land the Instructor in serious trouble if a fatality occurred. Please mark this as Urgent!

  2. Policing Through

    If you operate a forklift, you have to repeat the whole training course every five years. This seems a little excessive. Surely a one day theoretical and practical assessment should suffice.

    Drive a car and once you have passed your test at 17, providing you do not get caught nobody bothers you until you die, maybe 70 years later. This is at the opposite extreme to fork lift drivers, but much, much worse. Forklifts operate in highly regimented environments with safety walk ways, hi viz jackets, health and safety training and so forth. Forklifts are not used to pop down to Tesco for some milk for the canteen.

    Around 25% of Britain’s drivers have uncorrected eyesight. At licence renewal time, lie. Many do. You have to get caught first. Few are. Even then, the chances of being locked up are remote. A retired medical doctor in his 90s killed a young man at night by driving the wrong way down a dual carriageway. He was totally blind in one eye and had only 20% in the other. Because of his age, nothing happened beyond losing his licence forever. He got away with preventable manslaughter, which is as close to murder as you can realistically get.

    Our drivers are never checked. Bad habits and ignorance go from generation to generation and driving skills deteriorate as a result. A number of refinements must be introduced as a matter of urgency.

    New drivers must be re-examined at between 18 and 24 months to ensure that their skills have become properly embedded and have developed appropriately. Thereafter, such pass/fail assessments should take place at photocard renewal time along with a proper eye sight test. Again, there will be a six month window to reach a satisfactory skill level.

    At 70, the licence application must include a pass assessment, eye sight test and a medical. A lot of dangers will be weeded out but equally, a lot of safe, sensible drivers will remain on the road.

    The current system is a complete nonsense and only deemed satisfactory because of our comparatively low level of fatalities compared to others. Being least bad is not the same as being best. 1,750 deaths on our roads annually has remained pretty much static for over a decade. If that many people died in any other activity, there would be hell to pay.

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