Debate on older drivers reignites as woman, 83, crashes into French children

Seven of the 12 children on bikes were injured, sparking new calls for older people to have to face medical checks to keep driving

The accident has reignited a long-running debate over medical checks for older drivers in France (image for illustration only; no connection with La Rochelle)

Seven children have been injured - one seriously - after being hit by an 83-year-old driver in southwest France, reigniting a long-running debate over whether checks are needed for older drivers.

The driver ran into a group of 12 children on bikes on June 5 near the centre of La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime, Nouvelle-Aquitaine) at around 10:00. The injured children were taken to hospital, as was the driver, who was in a state of shock.

The children, aged seven to 11, were on an educational trip, accompanied by two adult coordinators, and were riding to a local park, where another teacher was waiting for them to take part in an orienteering activity.

First deputy mayor of La Rochelle, Catherine Leonidas, said the children were wearing helmets and fluorescent jackets, and were used to riding on the road.

How did the crash happen?

Initial inquiries suggest that the bikes were travelling on the right hand side of the road, when a Renault Twingo travelling in the opposite direction suddenly swerved to the left for no apparent reason, colliding with the cyclists head-on. 

It is not yet clear what caused the driver to swerve. The location of the crash has a 30 km/h speed limit, and is not normally considered to be an accident risk zone, although there is no separate cycle lane.

A team of 40 emergency personnel attended the scene, including 30 police officers, seven ambulances, and two mobile emergency and resuscitation units.

The La Rochelle prosecutor has assigned the relevant local police department to investigate the incident for “unintentional injuries caused by the driver of a vehicle”.

Debate resurfaces over older drivers

Residents on the street where the accident took place have said that the incident has caused them to ask if older drivers should face more safety checks.

Annick, who has lived on the street for many years, told RMC that many drivers “do not respect the speed limit or the road markings”, while a witness of the crash, Michel, said that the woman “did not brake; there were no signs of braking.

“The woman was inside, in shock, and had not fully realised what she had done,” he said.

One of the parents who came to the scene to pick up their child - who was one of the ones not injured - told local newspaper Sud-Ouest that it is now important to “introduce medical check-ups for senior citizens”.

"I'm not going to let my son cycle on his own any more. It's too dangerous,” she added.

Read also: Should older drivers in France face medical tests to stay on the road? 

The long-running debate on older drivers last hit headlines in 2023, after an accident in Berck (Pas-de-Calais), in which a 76-year-old driver confused the accelerator and brake pedals, and ploughed into a crowd as the town hosted a kite festival, injuring a dozen people, including one woman seriously.

In July of the same year, MP Bruno Millienne called for more legislation on the issue, saying that older people over 75 should be required to have checks every five years to ensure they are still safe to drive.

“Some senior citizens continue to drive despite clearly impaired cognitive abilities, thereby endangering themselves and other road users,” said Mr Millienne.

France currently does not have routine medical checks for elderly people to ensure they are fit to drive. 

Read also: Older drivers must pass medical tests to stay on French roads, says MP 

Read more: Drivers aged 65 and over offered free refresher courses in east France

Yet, departmental and regional prefects have the power to demand someone in their jurisdictions undergo a medical examination to see if they are fit to continue driving. The examination alone is not enough to revoke a licence, but it helps inform the prefect’s decision.

There is also an official list of medical conditions that can lead to a temporary or permanent licence revocation by prefects, which was last updated in 2022. It includes not just conditions themselves, but also symptoms of conditions that can cause danger on roads – such as fatigue or heart difficulties.

Similarly, it is already possible – but not obligatory – to use stickers with an ‘S’ on them to show that the driver is elderly, with wording such as Votre ainé au volant (senior citizen at the wheel). Yet, there are no plans for this to become a mandatory fixture, unlike the ‘A’ sticker for those who have recently passed their test.

How does this compare to other countries?

France stands in contrast to many other European countries, which have rigorous checks to ensure older people are still fit to drive.

In the Netherlands, drivers over 75 must take a sight, hearing, and reflex test every five years to keep their licence. In Ireland, all drivers over 70 undergo yearly medical examinations to continue driving.

However, some people in France say that elderly people are not the cause of most accidents, and are being unfairly targeted by ‘ageist’ legislation. 

Annual figures show around 10% of accidents on French roads involve someone over the age of 65, although more than double that – over 20% - involve a young driver between the ages of 18 and 24.

How are the injured children now?

One of the seven children injured was considered to be in a critical condition, requiring immediate intervention. Another two are still in a serious condition, while four others are stable.

One was airlifted to Tours hospital, and another to Poitiers. The others were taken to the La Rochelle hospital. Two were able to leave in the afternoon while the others remain in hospital.

“The scene was distressing for all those who saw it,” said Emmanuel Cayron, Secretary General of the Charente-Maritime prefecture after the incident.

Who is the driver?

The woman is aged 83, and has no previous criminal record or driving offences. She was tested for alcohol and drugs at the scene, and all tests came back negative.

Investigators have not found evidence of any other driving faults, such as running a red light or a STOP sign.

What are the next steps? 

Investigators are set to interview the driver when she has recovered (she is still in hospital after being treated for shock). 

They will also be interviewing witnesses, the adult supervisors who were accompanying the children at the time, as well as the other children who were not injured. 

Analysis of the town's CCTV footage may also help to provide insights into what happened.

A support and information line has been set up in La Rochelle for anyone affected by Wednesday’s incident, which can be reached on the number 09 70 80 90 40 (from within France).