Elderly driver's death preventable, coroner rules

The death of an elderly man who crashed after driving 100 metres the wrong way on an Auckland motorway was preventable, a coroner has ruled.

Ewen Donaldson, 87, caused the July 2010 accident when he drove the wrong way down the Te Atatu off-ramp on to the northwestern motorway into two oncoming cars.

Donaldson and his wife, Dulce Maria Donaldson, were in West Auckland, about 70 kilometres from their South Auckland home.

They stopped at a Lincoln Rd petrol station about 8.30pm on July 24, 2010, and asked for directions to South Auckland.

The attendant said Donaldson had looked "not fully alert".

After leaving the service station, Donaldson ignored the directions and at a nearby roundabout collided with two vehicles. He did not stop.

He then drove the wrong way down the northwestern motorway for 100m before crashing.

Donaldson died of his injuries at Auckland City Hospital, and his wife died at the scene.

Drivers over the age of 80 are required by law to renew their licence every two years. In doing so, they have to provide a medical certificate.

Donaldson successfully reapplied for his licence in 2003, when he turned 80, and again in 2005. He did not reapply in 2007.

In May 2008, Donaldson requested a medical certificate to renew his licence. His doctor sought a second medical opinion from an occupational driving assessor.

The assessor found that Donaldson would "encounter problems" when making rapid decisions, "especially in emergency situations".

He was not granted a medical certificate to renew his licence, and doctors had advised Donaldson he was not allowed to drive. However, he continued to drive.

At the time, Donaldson suffered from a "frontal lobe impairment" and bipolar disorder.

In March 2010, the Mental Health Services for Older People (MHSOP) advised Papakura police and the NZ Transport Agency that in continuing to drive without a valid licence, Donaldson posed a "significant risk to himself, his wife and members of the community".

They asked police to take all possible steps, including "impounding, clamping or making his vehicle undrivable".

The NZ Transport Agency wrote to Donaldson advising him not to drive. However, there was no record of a warning from police or of the MHSOP letter.

Coroner Katharine Greig ruled that the deaths of Donaldson and his wife were preventable as he had not held a driver's licence for three years before the fatal accident and he had been given repeated warnings not to drive.

In the ruling, Greig said a copy of the coroner's report would be sent to the chief executive of the NZ Transport Agency, the chief executive of the Ministry of Transport, the minister of transport and the police commissioner.

Although no formal recommendations were made, the report would "highlight the issues raised and for them to consider whether more formal processes, including legislation increasing police powers to impound vehicles of unlicensed drivers in some circumstances" to prevent them from driving.

Fairfax Media