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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Eyesight Tests (Drivers)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Meg Munn MP secured a Parliamentary debate on the eyesight testing requirements for drivers as a result of the tragic death of a young woman by an elderly driver with poor eyesight – her speech is below.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have secured a debate on eyesight regulations for drivers, especially as we are in the middle of National Eye Health Week.

As I speak, an event to mark the week is taking place in Parliament, and in my home city of Sheffield a wide range of organisations is holding an awareness day in the city centre. South Yorkshire police, in conjunction with the Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind, are focusing on the issue that brings me here today: the importance of good sight for driving and, in particular, drivers who do not realise that their sight is deteriorating.

I have been engaged on the subject for some time. I was contacted by my constituent Joy Barnes, whose niece tragically died in a road accident caused by a driver whose eyesight was not up to the necessary standard.

Joy’s niece, Fiona Buckley, was just 43 when she died. She was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, so spent much of her adult life in a wheelchair. Fiona worked in the city centre Shopmobility service and in the Royal Hallamshire hospital as a welcomer. A bubbly person, she enjoyed a lively social life and, in her younger days, was an accomplished swimmer, later becoming an avid photographer and Scrabble player. Her family describe Fiona as a generous and courageous spirit.

At 10 pm on 6 December 2008, Fiona was crossing the road, with her friend Kay Pilley walking just behind. Witnesses said that the car approaching did not attempt to overtake or brake, but ran straight into them, and Fiona was thrown over the vehicle. She suffered a major head injury and her pelvis, spine and leg were broken. Six weeks later, she died in hospital from multiple organ failure. Kay suffered head and knee injuries and was treated at hospital; she could not remember what had happened.

Police officers subsequently tested the 87-year-old driver’s eyesight, and found that he could not read a car number plate from the required distance of 20.5 metres. He was later found to have cataracts in both eyes, which had probably been there for some 18 months. A doctor said it would give him “foggy or hazy” sight that could have rendered Fiona almost invisible to him. He also suffered from age-related macular degeneration, which blurs the central vision. With his right eye, he could see only from 6 metres what people with good vision can read from 24 metres.

The driver admitted causing death by careless driving, but the judge decided not to punish him for killing Fiona. The driver was given only three penalty points.

Fiona’s aunt, Joy Barnes, speaking on behalf of her wider family said: “Fiona’s death hit us all hard. The driver should not have been on the roads with such poor eyesight and it is a travesty that nothing is done to make sure that drivers meet a minimum standard of sight. If this driver had been made to have a sight test to keep his licence then Fiona would still be with us.”

During the current driving test, the examiner gives the driver three chances to read a number plate, from 20 metres for vehicles displaying the new-style plate or 20.5 metres for old-style plates. Following that, the drivers of cars, small vans and motorbikes need not take any form of eye test for the rest of their life, unless they voluntarily report that they have a serious vision impairment to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). Once drivers have reached the age of 70, in order to renew their licence they are asked to confirm that they have acceptable vision, but they are not required to prove it.

The Department for Transport has been consulting on the medical standards that should apply to eyesight tests for safe driving. Astonishingly, the Department is proposing that the testing distance should be reduced from 20.5 metres to 17.5 metres. The Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind is extremely concerned that any relaxation in the requirements could be detrimental to road safety. Can the Minister give me details of the evidence that was considered before reaching that proposal? What is her evidence to suggest that such a test is adequate in any way?

The current eyesight test is simply no longer fit for purpose. In contrast with the tragic death of Fiona Buckley, it is not possible to attribute many road accidents directly to poor eyesight. Eyesight is often only one of the factors that might be involved; others include the time of day, the weather, the condition of the road and tiredness. However, it is common sense that poor vision will impair any driver’s performance, even taking into account all other conditions.

The distance number plate test has been in place since the 1930s and is outdated. It has remained unchanged, despite increased numbers of vehicles on the road and developments in road safety standards and clinical technology. It is not scientifically based and does not reflect modern day knowledge of vision. The number plate test also only measures visual acuity—put simply, the ability to see at a distance. It does not produce consistent results and can be affected by environmental conditions. Drivers can fail the test in different lighting or weather conditions. Several scientific publications have questioned the accuracy and reliability of the number plate test as a method of screening visual acuity.

Also, it does not test visual field—put simply again, the ability to see around while looking straight ahead. Visual field loss can advance significantly without a person becoming aware of a problem. For instance, glaucoma is a condition that someone can have and yet pass a number plate test with insufficient field vision.

The current system also requires self-reporting and therefore relies on individual drivers being aware of the required standard, realising that they do not meet it and knowing that not notifying the DVLA of any problem is a criminal offence. However, many drivers do not notice what can be a gradual change in their vision, remaining unaware that they fall below the required legal eyesight standard.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I can suggest one method of checking everyone’s eyesight, including mine. I register an interest as a diabetic—type 2 of course, controlled by diet. If people visit an optician every year, the optician tells them about their eyesight. Might that be a method whereby people can check if their eyesight is deteriorating?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about what could be done if the current system, which puts the onus on the driver, continues. I will argue, for good reasons, that an eye test should be a requirement.

Many people with glaucoma do not have any symptoms until the condition is quite advanced. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidance advises that once vision loss becomes apparent, up to 90% of optic nerve fibres might already have been damaged.

The general manager of Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind, Steve Hambleton, said: “when people are diagnosed with an eye condition that impacts upon their ability to drive safely, the onus is on the driver to notify DVLA. We encounter too many people who do not do this and continue to drive. In these days of data protection etc., it is extremely difficult if not impossible for organisations such as ours to advise DVLA of our concerns.”

Last month, I attended the launch of the UN decade of road safety, which was addressed by the Secretary of State for Transport. The UK has a proud record: Great Britain had the fourth fewest road deaths per million people, we have been in the top five performing countries throughout the past decade and we were in first place in 2009. Yet on eyesight testing, we are lagging behind many countries and many of our neighbours in the European Union.

The EU has recently published directives to standardise driving licences and to harmonise European standards. The UK lags behind best performance of most other European countries in assessing drivers’ vision. A report released only this week outlines that a majority of EU member states assess visual acuity and visual fields in advance of issuing a first full driving licence. The UK is among the minority that requires no further assessment of vision throughout a driving career.

The 2006 and 2009 EU driving licence directives continue a long path to harmonise driving licences with the overall aim of improving road safety and facilitating enforcement throughout EU countries. Is the Minister really content to see our otherwise excellent record on road safety lag far behind the best practice of our near neighbours? Given that the EU directive recommends a visual field of at least 120 degrees, how can the number plate test be sufficient to comply?

The only way to make sure that drivers continue to have adequate vision is to make eyesight testing mandatory at regular intervals throughout the time they hold a licence. Drivers should have to provide regular proof that they have had their eyes tested by a medical professional and that they meet minimum standards for visual acuity and visual field. That should happen at least every 10 years, coinciding with drivers renewing their photo driving licence.

That would be a simple and inexpensive step that would vastly improve the eyesight of drivers throughout the UK. I also recommend that when drivers reach the age of 70 and have to self-certify that they are fit to drive, they should be required to submit evidence from an appropriate professional that they have a safe and legal level of eyesight.

The present inadequacies must be addressed. That view is supported by the Optical Confederation, which represents 12,000 optometrists, and the 6,000 dispensing opticians and 7,000 optical businesses in the UK. Those organisations and many others concerned with road safety have submitted their concerns to the Department for Transport’s consultation. Will the Minister report on the outcome of the consultation, and when will the Government respond to it?

Having good eyesight is one of the most basic requirements for safe driving. It is widely recognised that 90% of sensory information when driving comes from vision, which underlines the importance of always driving with good eyesight. Being an experienced and skilled driver who is aware of the dangers of the roads is simply meaningless if one is unable to spot hazards in time. Research shows that one in six drivers cannot see well enough to pass a very basic eyesight test. People who are reluctant to give up their driving licence cannot be relied on to inform the authorities if they have eyesight problems.

Making the changes that I suggest would have public support. In vox pop interviews this morning, my local radio station, Radio Sheffield, spoke to five people—only a few, but four of the five thought that those changes were sensible and saw no problem with them. BRAKE, the road safety charity, released a survey, which no doubt involved a few more people than the five in Sheffield, showing that 75% of drivers support compulsory eyesight testing for drivers every five years.

Continuing with a system of drivers self-reporting any problems that they may have is not the answer. Poor driver eyesight kills, and every death is devastating to the people involved. The Government should act on the professional advice, which commands support among drivers, and change the driving test to ensure that all drivers can see what lies ahead of them while on the road.

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