The email alert from Royal Communications was terse: “The Duke of Edinburgh was involved in a road traffic accident with another vehicle this afternoon. The Duke was not injured. The accident took place close to the Sandringham Estate. Local police attended the scene.” Prince Philip, 98 in June, had been at the royal estate of Sandringham in rural Norfolk when it occurred on Jan. 17.
That the palace would even notify the media about such an accident was the first inkling that this wasn’t a simple fender-bender. Sure enough, pictures soon emerged showing the prince’s vehicle, a Land Rover Freelander, on its side, airbags deployed, with a sizable crater in its passenger side door. Another vehicle was in a ditch.
The palace reported that Philip was driving the SUV and pulling out of a driveway onto a two-lane road when the accident occurred. An eyewitness told media that they’d helped the Duke of Edinburgh out of his overturned car and that he was “very, very shocked.” While two people in the other car sustained minor injuries, Philip escaped unscathed, Norfolk Police confirmed. To be sure, he was seen by a doctor at Sandringham who gave him the all-clear. Norfolk Police also stated that Philip as well as the driver of the other car were breathalyzed as per standard policy and the results were negative. (Queen Elizabeth II, 92, was with her husband in Sandringham. They normally stay there from Christmas until Feb. 6, the day that marks the death of her father, King George VI, and her accession to the throne in 1952.)
Given the palace’s account of the accident, it could be that the prince is at fault, though there may be extenuating circumstances. Regardless, the accident raises a question familiar to anyone who knows an elderly driver: should Prince Philip still be driving? That the Duke of Edinburgh operates vehicles on public roads and not just the extensive private ones on royal estates may come as a surprise to those who haven’t followed the life of the Queen’s consort. Philip has always been a fiercely independent, strong-willed man who worked as hard off-duty as he did on-duty. After all, this is the man who startled the Secret Service when he drove U.S. president Barack and Michelle Obama (as well as Queen Elizabeth II) to Windsor Castle after the American leader and his wife arrived by helicopter on the Windsor estate to wish the Queen a happy 90th birthday in 2016.
Even after his retirement from public life in 2017, after completing some 22,000 solo engagements in six decades, he maintained a busy schedule. Though increasingly out of the range of journalists and photographers—he even skipped the obligatory Christmas church service on Dec. 25—he’s kept up his private duties of being in charge of the royal family’s private estates. And, as they are extensive in size, that necessitates being in a car. And for Philip, that means driving. Last summer he was spotted at the wheel of his Land Rover near the family’s Scottish estate of Balmoral. In addition, he regularly takes the reins during carriage rides at Windsor.
While statistics from the Royal Automobile Club Foundation suggest that elderly driving licence holders have fewer deaths and injuries, the U.S. National Institute of Health cautions that eyesight dims with age and hearing weakens, both of which have an effect behind the wheel. “As you get older, your reflexes might get slower, and you might not react as quickly as you could in the past. You might find that you have a shorter attention span, making it harder to do two things at once. Stiff joints or weak muscles also can make it harder to move quickly,” the NIH cautions.
Now, perhaps, the royal family is going to have “the talk” with Philip. Asking a person if they may be a danger to others on the road is one of the most difficult conversations anyone will have, for losing a driver’s licence can be seen as a blow to one’s independence. But it’s also a necessary discussion. For, as Philip’s accident proved, it’s not all about the elderly driver; there are countless others on the road whose lives could also be affected. Kudos to the duke for his determination not to “go gentle into that good night,” but perhaps someone else can drive in the future.