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Road Traffic (Driver Licensing and Information Systems) Bill [Lords]

(As amended in Standing Committee) considered.

New Clause 1

Sight testing

It shall be a condition of the validity of any driving licence that the eyesight of the holder has been tested within a period and to a standard which shall be prescribed by a statutory instrument subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament.'.-- [Mr. Cohen.] Brought up, and read the First time.

10.15 pm

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second Time.

This is a sensible new clause as it would improve the current practice for testing the eyesight of a driver. At the moment a would-be driver has a one -off test just before his driving test when he must look at a number plate X yards away. After that test he may drive for life without a further eyesight test and it is assumed that his eyesight is satisfactory.

In Committee the Minister said that, each day, 60 cases of eyesight problems were reported to the driver and vehicle licensing centre. I pointed out to him that that meant that there were about 22,000 such cases a year--and that does not take into account the cases that are not reported. The Minister tried to justify his case by arguing that only 300 cases were subject to prosecution because of eyesight deficiencies. The other people, however, would be picked up for all sorts of reasons such as dangerous driving, but in each case poor eyesight would be a factor.

In Committee the Minister argued that eyesight was not important enough to warrant regular eye tests--

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cohen : I shall give way in a minute.

To an extent I agree with the Minister, as medical fitness is not just good eyesight, but it was wrong for him to say that eyesight was not important.

Mr. Bottomley : The point I was making was that the people who are most likely to be involved in injury crashes are those who have the best eyesight. I did not say that eyesight was not important.

Mr. Cohen : I take that point. There are some people who are too cocky and who cause accidents although they have all their faculties. Nevertheless, eyesight is an important factor. I appreciate the Minister's intervention, because he is now acknowledging that eyesight is important. As he has acknowledged that, eyesight should be tested regularly. People with poor eyesight may not only be involved in an accident, but may cause an accident, despite not being involved in it themselves. It is important for others that drivers have tests even if they believe that their sight is good.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : My hon. Friend is correct. I welcome the Minister's comment about perfect eyesight and people having accidents, but he is doing nothing about it. My hon. Friend is aware that I am

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conscious of drivers passing me who are on the telephone. They have accidents although their eyesight is perfect, as the Minister says.

Mr. Cohen : My hon. Friend is right and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) raised in Committee the point about car telephones and people's attention being distracted when they were supposed to be driving. Again, the Minister said that that was wrong and that he thought some action should be taken against such people. However, no amendment has been tabled on Report. It is an ideal opportunity for the Minister to act after making his comments in Committee, yet we have seen no action.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : I was reluctant to intervene in my hon. Friend's speech because he was just warming up. Is he aware that during our numerous debates in Committee about the misuse of car phones and their inherent danger, and about the lack of eyesight testing, the Minister largely conceded all our arguments? One would have thought that, having done so, he would table amendments to deal with the problem of drivers with poor eyesight and with drivers who persist in driving and talking on the telephone at the same time and who cannot, therefore, control the car properly. He has not done so. Does my hon. Friend not think that that is strange? The Minister seems to believe in a laissez-faire approach or perhaps he believes that road safety problems will be solved by some honeyed words from him at a suitable time on Radio 4.

Mr. Cohen : My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Bill seeks to reduce accidents, so there must be action on eyesight testing. My hon. Friend is right to say that the Minister spoke honeyed words in Committee about car telephones, but he did not make commitments about eyesight tests. He was shaky in his comments on eyesight tests and I suspect that the reason was that his Government had brought in charges for eye tests for the general public. We saw a report at the weekend that the average charge is now about £10.40 and that there has been a massive slump of 50 per cent. in the number of people taking that test. The Minister's Government have caused that. If the Minister were to take action on eyesight tests so that there were fewer road accidents, that would mean that the charge should be scrapped. The Minister is afraid to cross the Prime Minister because he is afraid that he would be sacked, so he will not speak up for the people who will be the victims.

The Minister should take action on eyesight tests, and a proper test should be free. There should be an element of compulsion and the test should be carried out regularly. Many drivers would welcome that. Those who failed the test would welcome finding out that they were unfit to drive because they would realise that they were a risk to themselves. Nobody should have anything to fear from having a proper eyesight test to see whether he is fit to drive. In addition to being compulsory, the test should be free-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. May I ask hon. Members not to indulge in private conversations.

Mr. Cohen : Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate your support. I am pleased to be given a hearing on this

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important matter. People's lives are at stake and the House should give due weight and proper consideration to my very serious proposal.

Sight tests are sometimes taken at the scene of an accident, and I have referred to the prosecutions that take place--about 300 a year. However, by then it is too late ; the accident has already occurred and there may have been injuries or a death.

I asked the Minister what is the total number of people required to take regular eyesight tests to retain their driving licence and what proportion fail every year. I am talking not about the general public but about those who drive heavy goods vehicles and so on. The Minister replied :

"There is no information about the number of people required to take regular eyesight tests."

That is scandalous. If people are required to take regular tests, the information should be kept.

We were told in Committee that there was not enough evidence to justify a change. I dispute that, and I shall present a great deal of evidence from people who say that there should be regular tests. Yet the Minister requires some categories of people to take eyesight tests by law but then does not keep the information so that he can establish whether the tests are relevant or should be extended. In his reply to me, the Minister said :

"In 1988-89 the total number of people required to take a prescribed eyesight test to determine their fitness to drive was 2, 981.

Eyesight problems account for around 8 per cent. of the medical declarations on applications and notifications (during the currency of the licence), and around 8 per cent. of referrals and revocations relate to eyesight.

In 1987-88 there were 10,442 revocations refusals in all and in 1988-89 there were 10,891 revocations refusals in all, resulting in over 800 revocations refusals on eyesight grounds"--[ Official Report, 18 May 1989 ; Vol. 153, c. 277. ]

Eight per cent. is not an insignificant proportion. If we extrapolate from that figure, we may conclude that there are a lot of people driving around with bad eyesight, whose sight will not have been tested since they passed the number plate test perhaps 20 years ago.

Mr. Corbyn : Does my friend agree--[ Hon. Members :-- "Your friend?"] Yes, he is a good friend of mine and an old friend--

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : An excellent friend.

Mr. Corbyn : And an excellent friend. My hon. Friend has shown that in the majority of cases poor sight is voluntarily reported by more responsible drivers who feel that they may be a danger to other road users. That shows that there is a problem and that it is recognised by some drivers.

My hon. Friend's new clause would ensure that all drivers would be forced to have eyesight tests. That would mean that irresponsible drivers or those who did not believe that their sight was deteriorating would be forced to take a sight test and the roads would be much safer.

Mr. Cohen : I agree with my hon. Friend. I am not saying that everybody should take a sight test every week or even every year, but there should be a system for regular testing of drivers for their own benefit as well as everyone else's.

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The Minister was kind enough to the Committee that considered the Bill to set up a meeting to which he brought along departmental experts. They sent shivers down my spine, however, when they argued for no change. That was especially my feeling when they said that most drivers drive by intuition and that it would not matter whether some of them were blindfolded. They did not quite say that, but they reached that position. I would hate to be driving a car if I were blindfolded or if a driver coming towards me were blindfolded. 10.30 pm

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : My hon. Friend's words confirm what I thought the Minister said : that drivers with perfect eyesight are more likely to be involved in accidents. The Minister has presented us with a curious form of logic. On that basis, those with good eyesight would, under the regulations, be prescribed with glasses that would make their eyesight worse so as to make them immune from accidents. Surely that is a topsy-turvy approach. Perhaps my hon. Friend will comment upon that.

Mr. Cohen : That is self-explanatory.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cohen : Yes, of course.

Mr. Bottomley : I think that the hon. Gentleman was right to say, "That is self-explanatory." He was presented with the sort of logic that would seem better in "Alice Through the Looking-glass" than in this place. The hon. Gentleman may be having a good deal of fun, but he should not say that the experts on eyesight and eye testing declared that individuals can drive better when they are blindfolded. He may say that I said that ; it would not be true, although it would perhaps be acceptable. If he made the assertion, it would not be true, but it would be less unlikely. The same can be said of the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) should not attribute such a comment to medical experts. The truth is that those of us who are most concerned about eyesight put 60 motorists a day on report to Swansea while some put themselves on report. Fourteen out of 15 can continue driving. If those are the most likely to have eyesight troubles, and if most of them continue driving, it is worth accepting that drivers are right, if they have any concern, to ask those at Swansea, "Should I continue driving?" That presentation provides the reassurance that many should. The real problem comes, as the hon. Gentleman knows--he has probably experienced it himself, as most of us have--when we are young and our eyesight is at its best. That is when our involvement in injury accidents is at is greatest.

Mr. Cohen : I appreciate that. It should be said that the experts retreated when we started talking about the possibility of drivers being safer when they drove blindfolded. The main point, however, was that eye tests were not so relevant as driving by intuition. I disagreed with that.

The Minister is right about voluntary tests and drivers expressing worries and revoking their licences. In many instances, however, they are told that they can receive treatment, and that if they do so they can continue to

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drive. That is the position once they know that their eyesight is deficient in some way. I am saying that that should apply to the general public. The average motorist should know that his eyesight has become deficient. If he has that knowledge, he can receive treatment and, probably, continue to drive. It is far better that he continues to drive after treatment than to continue to drive without having had the benefit of any treatment.

Mr. Cryer : Perhaps my hon. Friend will comment on the Minister's assumption that our eyesight is best when we are young. People normally develop short-sightedness in their teens. That eyesight deficiency, which is easily and accurately corrected to produce perfect vision, stays with an individual until middle age. The assumption that at a certain age we are all provided with perfect or near-perfect eyesight that does not need correction, and that we do not need the tests that are provided for in the new clause, seems to be completely misplaced.

Mr. Cohen : I agree. Eyesight deficiencies can occur at any time. My eyesight deficiency occurred while I was at school, when I suddenly required glasses. My sister's eyesight deficiency occurred during her working life, when she was a teenager. It can happen at any time. Individuals can develop various eye ailments at different times. It is not only a problem of old age. That is why tests should be general for all drivers at regular intervals. I said that I would not delay the House too long, but various reports have recommended regular eyesight tests.

Mr. Tony Banks : The rate of eye testing is down by about 50 per cent., because of the Government-imposed charges. I take it that my hon. Friend has made that point. He should stress it again and again because it goes completely against the arguments of Conservative Members who supported the imposition of additional charges. The number of eye tests has fallen by 50 per cent. because of the charges imposed by short-sighted Conservative Members--in political terms, that is.

Mr. Cohen : I thought that my hon. Friend had made a Freudian slip, but it was a relevant one. The fact that the number of eye tests is down means that there will be more drivers with eyesight deficiencies who, in the normal course of events, would have had an eye test. Those drivers who, like me, wear glasses, probably went for an eye test every two years. That has been the average length of time between my check-ups up to now, but now that a charge has been introduced the length of time taken between visits is bound to be extended. Such people will be on the road with eyesight defeciencies when, formerly, they would have had a test. The 50 per cent. drop in the number of eye tests is appalling, and it will create more injuries, accidents and deaths. The Government must take responsibility for that policy.

Mr. Corbyn : I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. Surely further research into the cause of road accidents is required. It is clear that many people drive who ought to have an eye test, and my hon. Friend's proposal would help to reduce the numbers who do so. Is my hon. Friend also aware that the real victims of those who drive with inadequate eyesight on a dark night, a wet day or in a poorly illuminated area are likely to be pedestrians and cyclists, rather than other motorised road users? Those victims are in no position to speak up about this. I cannot understand why the Minister does not realise

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the force of our argument that we need proper eyesight testing for all drivers to ensure that they can see properly and drive safely.

Mr. Cohen : My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is too late to do anything once the accident has occurred.

Another point was made by Lord Lucas in the other place.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : Lord Lucan?

Mr. Cohen : Lord Lucan has disappeared ; perhaps he was in an accident because he had an eyesight problem. I do not know, but he has not been seen for a long time.

In the other place, Lord Lucas said that as far as he was aware there had been no research because Stats 19, the police form reporting an accident, includes no requirement whatsoever to note physical health, whether general physical health or eyesight. Therefore, no evidence has been collected to show whether it was a contributory factor.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, when an accident occurs we do not know whether bad eyesight was a contributory factor. It may well have occurred because of eyesight deficiency, yet that will not be shown in the official forms. The figures to which I referred earlier show that, even so, many such cases are reported in which eyesight problems are a factor. Plenty of people have called for higher standards, and one organisation to do so was one which I am sure that Conservative Members would hold in the highest regard : the police. They called for drivers' eyesight to be of a higher standard, and for compulsory regular testing. The Minister is ignoring the police. We know that his party

Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : Will my hon. Friend agree that under this Government's policies the cost of glasses and frames has gone up and up, and therefore in addition to the fact that there is now a charge for testing, as he rightly says, people will put off having their eyes tested and changing their glasses--

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. We are dealing with new clause 1, which relates to sight testing and driving licences.

Mr. Cohen : I shall not go down the road suggested by my hon. Friend, as I have already dealt with it. Certainly, these high charges put drivers off having tests.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : How much did the hon. Gentleman pay for his glasses? Are they private or National Health?

Mr. Cohen : They are private glasses, bought cheaply at the Baker's Arms. As far as I can remember, they cost me about £20 a long time ago --

Mr. Corbyn : How near is that to the Green Man roundabout? Could my hon. Friend see that roundabout when he came out of the optician's? What has been the effect of the Government's road building madness on that roundabout?

Mr. Cohen : I can certainly see that the Government are giving Leyton and Leytonstone a bad deal with their road plan. I do not need my £20 glasses to see that--all the facts and figures go to prove it.

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There have been other reports in support of eyesight testing. Lord Lucas also quoted the report by McKean and Edington, of Southampton university, on the incidence of glaucoma. Admittedly, it was a small survey, but it showed that many people had not realised that they could not see to the left or the right, and that that led to their accidents. A test would show up that problem. The Minister should have taken that evidence into account.

I know that some of my hon. Friends are not too happy about the Common Market, but in the recent European elections the people said that they want the best European practices here. There are obviously bad practices in Europe, but the social charter, for instance, is an example of best practice. So is eyesight testing for drivers. Belgium, Denmark, Ireland and Luxembourg all impose far better requirements for testing than we do. In the European Community, the minimum static acuity for a two-eyed person is 0.4 in the better eye and 0.2 in the worse eye, and 0.5 for both eyes together. For a one-eyed person, it is 0.8.

Mr. Cryer : What about a three-eyed person?

Mr. Cohen : I shall not take that up, lest we come on to four-eyed people like me in my glasses.

I have mentioned one of five tests required by EC policy. We have a once-in -a-lifetime test, the number plate test, and it is not even a very good one. Surveys of large numbers of people have provided clear evidence of defects of eyesight. The evidence is there. The Government will get into trouble again with their policy for the EEC, because there is a Council directive on driving licences. It is number 10357/1/88, entitled "Minimum Standards of Physical and Mental Fitness for Driving a Motor Vehicle". There are two groups, one for driving heavy vehicles and one for general capacity vehicles. It says for group 1 :

"applicants shall be required to undergo a medical examination if it becomes apparent, when the necessary formulaties are being completed or during the tests which they have to undergo prior to obtaining a driving licence, that they have one or more of the medical disabilities mentioned in this Annex."

That, of course, includes an eyesight test. The directive further says that they

"shall undergo such periodic medical examinations as may be prescribed by national laws".

The implication in the directive is that there shall be periodic tests, not just a one-off test as we have in this country. It says under group 2 :

"applicants shall undergo a medical examination before a driving licence is first granted to them and thereafter drivers shall undergo such periodic examinations as may be prescribed by national laws". That implies regularity. It does not say that there will not be any tests after the initial one. Indeed, it says :

"The standards set by member states for issuing driving licences may be stricter than those set out in this Annex."

That is showing that the Government are well out of tune with the rest of Europe.

The directive goes on :

"All applicants for a driving licence should undergo an appropriate investigation to ensure that they have adequate visual acuity for driving motor vehicles. Where there is reason to doubt that the applicant's vision is adequate, he should be examined by a competent medical authority. At this examination attention should be paid to the following in particular : visual acuity, field of vision, twilight vision and progressive eye diseases."

None of these is investigated in our number-plate test.

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Mr. Cryer : I am sure that when my hon. Friend refers to Europe, he is referring to that section of Europe that is called the Common Market. He should make that distinction clear.

Will my hon. Friend address his mind to regulations that will give the Minister the power to ensure that--for example, where eyesight tests are carried out and driving licences are submitted to Swansea for certification that the test has been approved and carried out--the legislation referring to the production of licences within five days is suitably modified so that those people whose licences are caught up in the log-jam at Swansea are not prosecuted? Because they have taken the test and their licences have gone to Swansea for approval and certification, they are open to another offence. As my hon. Friend knows, the failure to produce a licence within five days can be treated by the police as an offence even though there are good reasons, such as that the licence is at Swansea. For instance, diabetics have medical checks every three years.

Mr. Cohen : I should have thought that that would be a reasonable course to adopt. Of course, it is incumbent upon Swansea to process the licences rapidly, or at least to provide some evidence to the driver of the fact that his licence is being processed in Swansea. My hon. Friend has made a good point.

It is not just the European Community countries ; many other countries around the world require more stringent eye tests for drivers than we do-- in fact, it would be difficult to have worse than our system of a one-off test. The Community proposal in document 10357/1/88 says of corrective lenses :

"correction must be well tolerated. Driving licences shall not be issued to or renewed for applicants or drivers without a normal field of vision or suffering from diplopia."

How can that be tested for if there are no regular tests? When the EEC produces these documents there is a ministerial response stating the Government's attitude. I hurried to the Library to get a copy of the response, which was contained in an explanatory memorandum. It stated :

"The Commission now proposes that the process of harmonisation should be taken a stage further allowing residents"

of other member states to drive in the United Kingdom and vice versa. Our non-conformity with the other states will cease if the proposal goes through.

It also states that drivers of minibuses and light goods vehicles would have to meet higher medical standards. That would be difficult because they are volunteers and they might be deterrred by the costs involved. The Government should help voluntary drivers in those circumstances to pass a better quality test. Those drivers would want that because they are driving people for whom they care and they would want a higher standard of driving. The Department of Transport should help those organisations.

Mr. Cryer : The additional requirements for minibus drivers are not connected with the eyesight tests. They are part of the unnecessary and superfluous harmonisation proposals that pour from an over-eager and zealous Commission that wants to reduce us all to the same level of conformity. While I accept my hon. Friend's point that is is desirable to increase the standards of eyesight testing, the directive to which my hon Friend is referring--if it is the one that I have in mind--would make it very difficult for voluntary organisations to maintan their minibus services for the disabled.

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Mr. Cohen : That is why I referred to the drivers in voluntary organisations and said that the Government should help them directly perhaps by giving them priority in tests. I am not in favour of harmonisation of everything under the sun, but I am in favour of better standards for driving and eyesight tests. At the moment we have the worst such tests in Europe.

The memorandum states :

"An acceptable driving licence will benefit United Kingdom drivers in other Community countries and would cut the costs of British licensing arrangements."

That takes away aother of the Government's arguments.

The startling point about the explanatory memorandum, which is about a proposal which refers to eyesight tests, is that the Government avoid the issue of eyesight tests. They are not mentioned in the Government's memorandum. That shows the Government's guilt over that issue.

I rest my case on that. The Minister has been shown to be guilty of not coming forward with proper standards for eyesight tests of drivers. I think that an eyesight test should be included in a general medical fitness test for drivers. That may be difficult to implement. However, at the very least, this sensible new clause should be accepted to allow a statutory instrument to come before the House to provide for regular eyesight tests. That would save many lives and a great number of injuries. Such testing should also be free.

The Government should stand ashamed of the charge for eye tests that they imposed, of the consequential 50 per cent. reduction in the number of people taking eye tests, and of the increasing incidence of poor eyesight among drivers and the public in general. I commend my very sensible new clause, and I hope that House will see sense and that the Minister will recognise his guilt and accept it.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the debate be now adjourned.-- [Mr. Garel-Jones.]

Question put :--

The House divided : Ayes 128, Noes 46.

Division No. 262] [10.55 pm


Alexander, Richard

Alison, Rt Hon Michael

Allason, Rupert

Amess, David

Amos, Alan

Arbuthnot, James

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)

Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)

Ashby, David

Batiste, Spencer

Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)

Bevan, David Gilroy

Blackburn, Dr John G.

Boswell, Tim

Bottomley, Peter

Bowis, John

Brazier, Julian

Brooke, Rt Hon Peter

Buck, Sir Antony

Burns, Simon

Butcher, John

Butterfill, John

Carrington, Matthew

Cash, William

Channon, Rt Hon Paul

Chapman, Sydney

Chope, Christopher

Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)

Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)

Coombs, Simon (Swindon)

Cran, James

Currie, Mrs Edwina

Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)

Davis, David (Boothferry)

Day, Stephen

Devlin, Tim

Dorrell, Stephen

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James

Dunn, Bob

Durant, Tony

Fallon, Michael

Favell, Tony

Fenner, Dame Peggy

Fishburn, John Dudley

Forman, Nigel

Forth, Eric

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