Sorry, Dick Van Dyke – just because you can drive at 97, doesn’t mean you should

Dick Van Dyke
Dick Van Dyke
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OK, I’m going to say it even if nobody else will. Dick Van Dyke; we all thought he was dead. Just admit it.

But the Mary Poppins star, 97, is very much alive, mostly by the grace of God, after he lost control of his car and drove into a gate in Malibu. How’s that for a Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang? There are so many questions here, but they all boil down to the same thing; why earth is a 97-year-old man still being allowed to drive?

Now before anyone accuses me of being a hater, let me just say I have nothing against nonagenarians doing extraordinary things per se. Why, Rupert Murdoch, aged 92, is about to marry for the fifth time and that’s lovely because all he needs is to scratch a spindly signature on the prenup and hope his adult kids don’t scare this one off.

Sir David Attenborough communing with puffins on a Skomer cliff edge at the age of 96? TV gold, I tell you. And when 90-year-old great grandmother Lyn Mitchell from Gloucestershire survived cancer treatment in 2021 and decided to raise money for Macmillan by doing a wing walk, I saluted her eight-minute flight on top of a biplane.

This was mostly because it was very brave but also because I wasn’t coming towards her in another byplane and hoping she wouldn’t crash into me. Extravagant risks are fine and dandy as long as they don’t affect other people; by your tenth decade that should be your guiding principle in all things. But older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser.

I remember just 48 hours after the late Duke of Edinburgh, then 97, escaped unhurt after a collision with a Ford Kia that overturned his Land Rover near the royals’ Sandringham estate, he was seen driving without a seatbelt.

The ensuing media furore was quite possibly what persuaded him to “voluntarily” surrender his driving licence three weeks later.

The issue of safety remains pressing; earlier this week a coroner called for urgent changes to age limits for drivers after a woman on a mobility scooter was killed by a 95-year-old man who drove through a red light.

Kathleen Fancourt, 89, was killed when she was hit by the man’s car on a Chichester pedestrian crossing in September 2021. The driver has since pleaded guilty to dangerous driving but in a “prevention of future deaths” report, the senior coroner for West Sussex, Penelope Schofield, raised concerns about older drivers.

Currently, there’s no upper age limit for drivers. People over 70 are required to apply for a new licence every three years. Crazily, there are no medical checks; drivers are expected to certify their own ability at the wheel even though they may be oblivious to their own shortcomings.

A poll carried out recently by YouGov revealed that 70 per cent of people think older drivers should be forced to retake their tests from the age of 60 because of slower reaction times, while nearly half think drivers past a certain age should be banned altogether.

None of this is intended to rob older people of their agency, not at all. I would love to go the full fashion icon Iris Apfel, still modelling, still busting taboos aged 101.

Sex therapist Dr Ruth is still doling out X-rated advice aged 94. And when Tom Cruise recently skipped the Oscars to hang out with Michael Caine at his 90th birthday party, nobody wondered why.

Who wouldn’t want to party with Michael Caine? - David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images
Who wouldn’t want to party with Michael Caine? - David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

Another Michael, now Lord Heseltine, celebrated his 90th a few days ago. Tall, unstooped he still has his Tarzan mane of hair; and his marbles. He’s been reprising his role as an establishment hellraiser-cum-vocal-Remainer, weighing into the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill debate and calling for radical changes to the Government’s agenda.

I’m tempted to say 90 is the new 60 but having witnessed Captain Sir Thomas Moore, 99, walking his way to his centenary in aid of charity during the pandemic and raising £32.8 million, it might well be the new 50. Either way it rocks. 100 per cent.

Maybe a wartime childhood baked resilience into this generation. Life was tough. Scarcity a given. They just adapted, got through and got on. Bette Davis once observed that growing old was not for sissies. It’s not great for those struggling on state pensions and languishing on disgracefully long NHS lists either.

If you’re not set to benefit from the Chancellor’s munificence in scrapping the limit on tax-free pension pots and the increase in the annual allowance – the most people can save in their pension pots in a year before paying tax – from £40,000 to £60,000 then you’d better not grow too frail to work past retirement.

The age at which the state pension is payable, currently 66, will have risen to 67 by the end of 2028. The Government was hoping to bring forward another planned increase to 68, but had to drop the idea because our life expectancy, on which such changes are predicated, is falling.

The UK now ranks 29th in a global chart of life expectancy, down from seventh place in 1952, and has performed worse over the past seven decades than all G7 countries except the USA, according to a new analysis published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, which points to socio-economic inequalities and poor health exacerbated by NHS failings.

On a personal level, those of us who want to become nimble nonagenarians need to invest in ourselves; eating well, staying active and remaining engaged. Why, at 97 some of us might feel perfectly able to drive.

But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. For those who seek thrills there’s always wing walking or, indeed, marriage.