Written by: Benjamin Mueller
Prince Philip was at the wheel?
To the astonishment and alarm of some Britons, he was. At age 97. On a public road, alone. And, on Thursday afternoon, he drove straight into the path of a minivan hurtling down a motorway with a 9-month-old boy inside.
The crash flipped the armor-plated Land Rover driven by Philip. The minivan careened off the road.
Philip and the child were unhurt, although a minivan passenger suffered a broken wrist and the driver sustained knee cuts. The prince told police officers he had been “dazzled by the sun,” a witness said.
Still, some Britons were confused over why the prince, the wizened and gaffe-prone Duke of Edinburgh who is the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, was even driving.
“You’d have to be a superhero for your mental acuity not to have slowed down,” said Inger Wallis, a Bloomsbury resident out walking her dog on Friday.
She shook her head as she repeated his age, while acknowledging her “deep respect” for the supporting role he has played for so many decades beside Elizabeth. Wallis’ own father, she said, hung up the keys at 84, scared to drive.
If nothing else, Britons could be thankful that, for one day at least, the agony of Britain’s tortured withdrawal from the European Union was not the leading topic of discussion.
The crash, involving a famously headstrong and famously old royal, did provoke a lively discussion about whether Britain should stop older people from driving. The country will have 1 million drivers older than 85 by 2025, doubled from a few years ago. And those drivers are more vulnerable to crash injuries because of their frailty.
That Philip was unaccompanied in the Land Rover by his round-the-clock bodyguards or royal chauffeurs also drew attention to an inconvenient fact, for those who have ever tried to pry the keys from older relatives.
Driving is a lifeline for some older people, especially in Britain, where smaller towns and rural areas have scant public transit. And older drivers are, by many measures, safer drivers, with people older than 70 half as likely as drivers 25 and younger to kill a pedestrian, the Older Drivers Task Force in Britain said in 2016.
If the government is to take anyone’s keys, experts said, it should target young men.
Arthur Currie, 70, a resident at the Royal Hospital Chelsea for veterans of the British Army, said his relatives sit more stiffly in the passenger seat when he gets behind the wheel. “Or they will say to me, ‘You see that car coming, Daddy?’” he said. But when they broach the topic of him giving up his keys altogether, Currie makes his view clear.
“My first reaction is looking at them and giving them what they call a laser stare,” he said. “Being an ex-regimental sergeant major, I have perfected the laser stare.”
Currie said his only thought, upon hearing about the crash, was concern for Philip and the others involved. As an honorary colonel of the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, where Currie was once a sergeant major, the prince made annual visits to the troops.
“If he felt he was able enough to drive, who am I or who’s anybody else to say he shouldn’t be driving?” Currie said.
Not all Britons were so deferential.
John Clegg, manning the register at the London Review Bookshop, wondered why the prince could not simply get his driving fix on the private roads of his vast royal estates.
“What’s the point in going around in a Land Rover unless you’re going to go off road?” he asked. (Not the most pressing question, perhaps, regarding the solo driving by a 97-year-old royal.)
Clegg said his grandmother finally persuaded his grandfather to stop driving after too many instances of having to shake him awake.
“He never went off the road, but she could see when it could happen,” Clegg said.
The prince is regarded a bit warily by the British public. He is known to be hardheaded and occasionally gruff, and to make racist and sexist comments.
Ingrid Seward, a royals expert whose latest book is “My Husband and I: The Inside Story of 70 Years of the Royal Marriage,” suspected the prince would stubbornly resist the queen’s admonitions about his driving but would see the logic and could be persuaded to give it up.
“It is the lobotomy of his last vestige of independence,” Seward said.
Like many others, Seward has her own experience trying, with some difficulty, to persuade a parent to relinquish the keys. At 86, her mother took a driving test in an attempt to defy Seward and prove she could still drive. She failed.
Seward said Philip may have been alone in the Land Rover because he was driving only from one side of his Sandringham Estate to another. A few years ago, the Obamas got into the car with Prince Philip on the same estate and looked somewhat less than at ease.
Philip was known to prize fast sports cars, and the British news media quickly dug up examples of his reckless driving, including one accident in 1996 in which he rear-ended a car at a pedestrian crossing, leaving the driver in a neck brace. As far back as the 1950s, a British tabloid questioned whether he should be trusted to drive the queen around.
On Thursday afternoon, he was pulling off a private road, heading onto or across a public motorway known for accidents, with its 60-mph speed limit and scary bends. Local lawmakers, who coincidentally met on Friday to discuss the road’s safety, lowered the speed to 50 mph.
As the British tabloids chronicled in graphic cartoon mock-ups of the crash site, the prince’s car turned over, he was rescued through the sunroof, and he had to submit to a blood-alcohol test.
Hugh Bladon, 77, a spokesman for the Alliance of British Drivers and a proud older driver, said another alliance member familiar with the road had told him he could understand how the sun may have blinded the prince.
“Obviously, everyone’s going to jump on the age bandwagon,” he said. “But age actually is nothing to do with skill.”
British law requires drivers at age 70 to start self-reporting medical issues related to their fitness for the road every three years. The Older Drivers Task Force recommended that the government raise the age to 75 but also start requiring an eyesight test, a more accurate barometer of any problems.
Britain instituted driving tests in 1935, but it is unclear if Philip, who joined the Royal Navy at 18, took one. The royal palace, though, confirmed on Friday that he had a license. The queen, on the other hand, as the person in whose name British licenses are issued, is the only Briton who can drive without one.
British lawyers said there was a chance Philip could be charged with driving without due care and attention, although he could also possibly avoid charges by surrendering his license.
There were hints Friday, though, that the prince would not give up quite so easily. A replacement Land Rover was seen by British photographers being driven onto the grounds of his estate, under the watchful eye of police.