Road Safety — [Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:28 pm on 16th October 2018.

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Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 3:28 pm, 16th October 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate Jack Brereton on initiating the debate. I want to raise an issue that is rarely discussed in the context of road safety—driver eyesight. My interest—indeed, my passion—about the issue arises from a terrible incident in my constituency two years ago. Poppy-Arabella Clarke—three years old, a delightful girl and the apple of her mum’s and dad’s eye—was crossing the Chester road with her mother, Rachel. She was run down by a driver who was 72, and who had been told twice in the previous three weeks that he should never drive again, although he continued to do so. The family are devastated to this day.

We need a common-sense approach towards this—indeed, on other issues we have had such common-sense engagement with the Government. Five years ago Avril Child’s two daughters, who were in their early 20s, were crossing the Walsall Road. They got hit by a driver who was doing 64 miles an hour, and Sarah died. Bizarrely, the individual who was behind the wheel got four years in jail and a four-year driving ban, and he started serving the driving ban on day one of being in jail. We engaged with the then Justice Minister, Sir Mike Penning, and the law was changed so that such bans will now run consecutively. In a similar vein, I hope that the Government will approach with common sense the issue of what needs to be done about driver eyesight.

I wish to make three points. First, as things stand, when we take a driving test we have to read a number plate from 20 metres. That is a lamentably poor measure of visual acuity, so why not improve it? The original number plate test dates back 80 years to 1937. It is a comparatively weak test, and across Europe there is a much more robust approach. Of 29 countries assessed by the European Council of Optometry and Optics, the UK was one of only five that required just a licence plate test. Furthermore, in 22 of the 29 countries assessed, a doctor or ophthalmologist is required to carry out an eye test, yet in the UK, only the driving instructor conducts the test on the day. Evidence from Brake suggests that the public would support such a measure, and polling shows that 67% of the general public believe that the system should change.

There is also a case for the introduction of regular eyesight tests during our driving lives, because at no point do most drivers ever have to take an eye test. Again, if we consider the European experience we see that some countries such as Hungary and Finland require an eye test from drivers in their 40s, and a further 13 countries require an eye test at 70, 75 or 80. We know from evidence provided by Brake and data from Direct Line that British drivers are not getting their eyes tested on a regular basis. Indeed, 12% of drivers never get their eyes tested, and 16% of drivers have had an accident in the past two years. For those who have problems with their eyesight, the figure for those involved in an accident increases to 67%. There is a strong case for us to do something in the United Kingdom, as has happened in many countries throughout Europe.

There is also the question of older drivers. Under UK law, once someone reaches 70 they must renew their driving licence, but they self-certify that they are fit to drive. There is no requirement for a medical—people just fill out a form and stay on the road. According to evidence from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, there are 4.5 million drivers over 70, and 100,000 over 90. The overwhelming majority of those people drive safely—indeed, statistically the big problem is not older drivers; it is young men. Having said that, there has been rapid growth in the number of older drivers, and as we live longer the number of drivers over 70 and over 90 increases—there are 3,700 drivers over 90 in the west midlands alone.

In conclusion, we hope that the Government will consider a range of measures, including a mandatory obligation for an ophthalmologist or doctor to report to the DVLA anyone they examine who cannot drive safely. It is somewhat surprising that the road safety strategy does not refer to eye testing, and I hope that the Minister will agree that these are real issues. We have already engaged with the Minister and had constructive discussions, and I hope that the Government will be prepared to take the necessary action, because never again should we have a tragedy such as the one that befell Poppy-Arabella Clarke.