HC Deb 17 July 1962 vol 663 cc283-97

(1) If a person drives a motor vehicle on a road while his eyesight is such (whether through a defect which cannot be or one which is not for the time being sufficiently corrected) that he cannot comply with any requirement as to eyesight prescribed under the principal Act for the purposes of tests of competence to drive, he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months.

(2) A constable having reason to suspect that a person driving a motor vehicle may be guilty of an offence under subsection (1) of this section may require him to submit to a test for the purpose of ascertaining whether, using no other means of correction than he used at the time of driving, he can comply with the said requirement as to eyesight; and if that person refuses to submit to the test he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds.—[Mr. Hay.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Hay

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

It may be for the convenience of the Committee, if, at the same time, we discuss the Amendment to the First Schedule, in page 31, line 22, column 1, at the beginning to insert: 25. An offence under section (driving with uncorrected defective eyesight) of this Act (driving with uncorrected defective eyesight or refusing to submit to test). The Clause has been put down as a result of an undertaking given by the Government in Committee to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page). He tabled a proposed new Clause reflating to eyesight conditions in respect of driving licences, and we undertook to examine the point and to put down our own Clause. This is the result. The object of the Clause is to make it an offence for anyone to drive a motor vehicle on a road if, at the material time, he is incapable of meeting the eyesight standard which is laid down for the driving test. In meeting that standard he will be quite entitled to wear glasses, if that is his normal practice.

The point which the House ought to grasp in understanding the new Clause is that the standard of eyesight that we prescribe for the driving test is used as the criterion by which the new offence created by the Clause will be measured. Subsection (1) provides that if a person drives a motor vehicle on a road at a time when his eyesight is in such a condition that he cannot comply with any requirement as to eyesight prescribed under the principal Act he commits an offence, whether his failure is due to a defect or not.

It is just as though, in the course of his driving, he were required suddenly to take an eyesight test of the kind that he had to take when he first took out his licence. The House will probably know that that test is the ability to read a number plate consisting of six symbols, in good daylight, at a distance of 25 yards. In practice, this has proved to be a fairly reasonable sort of test.

We are to discuss the question of distance on another new Clause, in the name of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), so we may perhaps talk about that aspect of the matter in more detail when we reach that Clause. For this purpose all I want to say is that the test whether an offence is committed under subsection (1) is whether or not the driver, wearing glasses or not, can read a number plate at a distance of 25 yards in good daylight.

Mr. Mellish

Can the Minister assure us that when we reach the new Clause in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) he will not use the fact that we agree to this Clause—assuming that we do so—as an argument against the acceptance of that Clause?

Mr. Hay

Yes. I merely wanted to point out in passing that we shall be considering the 25-yard limitation in somewhat greater detail in connection with that new Clause. Apart from that there is no correlation between the two new Clauses.

Subsection (2) deals with the enforcement of the provisions of subsection (1), and gives power to a constable who has reason to suspect that an offence has been committed under subsection (1) to require a driver to submit to a test for the purpose of ascertaining whether he can comply with the eyesight requirement and read a number plate at a distance of 25 yards. When the constable conducts such a test the driver will be quite entitled to wear his spectacles if he normally does so when driving. In other words, if when he took the original eyesight test, at the time when he took out his licence, he was wearing glasses, he will still be able to wear them when taking the test on the road which the constable requires him to take.

When drafting the new Clause we had in mind a specific situation which has long been the subject of criticism. It is rightly said that people have to take an eyesight test—although it is a rudimentary one—at the time of taking out their licence, and are obliged, upon renewing their licence every year, to answer a question which asks whether they can continue to see a number plate at 25 yards, but that there is nothing to stop a person whose eyesight deteriorates during the currency of his licence from continuing to hold that licence. We are trying to deal with that situation and, at the same time, to deal with the position of the driver who has to wear glasses to be able to meet the eyesight standard but who fails to wear them while driving.

6.0 p.m.

One often hears of a man who wears his glasses when taking his eyesight test, but does not wear them when driving. I remember that years ago my mother told me of a couple who were friends of hers. The man who did the driving could hardly see across the road. His wife always accompanied him. When my mother asked how he was able to drive, the wife said that she told him whether anything was coming. That was, of course, a good many years ago, and in the present conditions on the roads it would not do. But undoubtedly a number of people, as we have discovered, take a driving teat while wearing glasses, but do not wear their glasses when driving thereafter, thereby circumventing the whole purpose of the test. They will be caught by the provision in the Clause. Our object is to try to tighten up the law and I hope that the House will accept the Clause.

Mr. Graham Page

I wish to thank my hon. Friend for carrying out an undertaking which was given during the Committee stage to introduce a Clause of this nature. I am particularly glad that he is not proposing to "mess about" and take powers by regulation, but that this will become law straight away; so that if a person is so careless of the safety of others that he drives with defective eyesight, he will be dealt with.

When discussing a previous Clause we talked about motor rallies. A certain amount of screening of competitors in those rallies has taken place and it has been found that a high proportion of the drivers have defective eyesight. I think, therefore, that a Clause of this kind is well justified and will increase safety on the roads.

Mr. Norman Cole (Bedfordshire, South)

I support the intention of the Clause. I noted that my hon. Friend used the word "constable". What will happen if, as often occurs in an accident involving a motor cyclist, the spectacles which he normally wears, and which he was wearing at the time, were broken? The only way to test the eyesight of the person in those circumstances would be to go to the optician to obtain the prescription for his spectacles and to test him with a similar pair of glasses, if the officer has reason to believe that an offence had been committed under the provisions of this Clause.

Does my hon. Friend mean that the constable will carry out the test? I cannot believe that that would be so. Our constables have enough to do now. I imagine that the test would be carried out by a doctor at the police station.

Mr. Hay

The first point raised by my hon. Friend 'the Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole) related to a person involved in an accident who was unfortunate enough to have his glasses broken. One must look at the terms of subsection (2), Which says that A constable having reason to suspect that a person driving a motor vehicle may be guilty of an offence under subsection (1) … may require him to submit to a test for the purpose of ascertaining whether, using no other means of correction than he used at the time of driving, he can comply with the said requirement … If, because they have been broken, the driver has not available the spectacles which were his means of correction and which he used at the time of driving it would be a complete defence. There is no doubt about that. I do not think that there is any point which needs to be made about it. If the glasses are broken, obviously that would prevent a test being made because the conditions laid down by the subsection could not be fulfilled.

The term "constable" is the normal form of drafting. It means a police officer. I do not think that my hon. Friend appreciates that we are simply giving power to a policeman to require a driver, using glasses or not, depending on the circumstances, to show that he can read a number plate 25 yards away in good daylight. I do not think that any great expertise is required by the constable. The Ministry of Transport driving examiners do this many times a day with candidates for driving tests. They are simply asked, "Can you read a number plate 25 yards away?" If the person can correctly spell out the letters and digits they pass, and, if not, they do not pass.

Mr. Frank Bowles (Nuneaton)

Is it possible that this provision may be used to test people who are unable to read a number plate at 25 yards because they have had too much to drink?

Mr. Hay

We have not the obscurity of approach that the hon. Gentleman imagines.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

It is probably reasonable and necessary to have a general power of the kind contained in this Clause. If we are to tell motor cyclists to wear helmets when riding their machines, there is no reason why we should not compel people with defective eyesight to wear spectacles when driving. I am a little uneasy about the power which is given to a constable to make, as it were, an instantaneous test. That power does not seem to be defined in any way.

It is true that the Clause says, if he has "reason to suspect", or some such words. But what would be such a reason? Unless there is some idea of what would entitle a police officer to stop a driver in the street at any time, and say, "Come on, now, let me apply a test to you," that power could lead to indiscriminate or arbitrary action. I do not know whether the Minister proposes to take power, by regulation or something of that kind, to define circumstances which would amount to a reasonable cause within the meaning of the Clause.

Mr. W. Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

I have a good deal of sympathy with what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). It is necessary to take these general powers. But I do not think the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary fully appreciate that here there are a number of loopholes.

As I understand it, the Clause gives a police officer power to test a driver immediately to see whether he can read a number plate at 25 yards. If he cannot, presumably action may be taken against him. The conditions under which the person may be called on to read the number plate at 25 yards varies enormously. Have the Minister's advisers considered the situation which might arise where a man who has taken a test, and presumably satisfied the examiners that he can read the number plate at 25 yards, acquires a defect in his eyesight during the next twelve months?

The man may be quite unaware of this, and it seems a little hard that he should be proceeded against for a breach of the law. Would it be possible in such circumstances for the police officer, or some other authority, to say to him, "You do not satisfy the test at the moment. But can you, within five days" —or whatever period may be decided— "produce a certificate from a competent authority"—an ophthalmologist or an optician—"to show the state of your eyesight?"

It is a fact that a person with a considerable error visually can, under some circumstances, pass a test of this kind at a certain time of the day without glasses. Take the example, of which we may be all familiar, of a friend, a member of the family, or even a fellow Member, whom one knows wears spectacles, and who may be short-sighted without them. Sometimes one sees this person peering to see an object clearly, and for a moment he can achieve a clear vision. Were he stopped by a police officer he might get through the test and be able to read a number plate at 25 yards. That would not alter the fact that he suffers from defective eyesight.

There are other considerations, such as whether the person concerned is tired or not feeling well, or that early in the morning he could pass the test and late in the day he could not. Is it possible for the Minister to look again at this matter to see whether, under some circumstances, it could be said to a person who failed to pass the test, "You ought to take advice from a person qualified to advise" and whether a certificate could be produced at the police station at a later date.

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

Having been a member of the Standing Committee, I appreciate and largely sympathise with the intention of the new Clause. Anything I say is not offered in any carping spirit, but I think that the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths), who is an optician and knows the technical aspects of the questions, should be listened to with respect.

While most of us who had to deal with the technicalities of the Bill still say that the overriding consideration in all our deliberations has been to increase the safety factor on the roads and to remove dangers which can be dealt with rationally and. sensibly, we do not wish to create new offences and penalties which would seem unfair to certain types of drivers. The Clause has technical aspects, as we have been made aware by the comments which have been made upon it by hon. Members.

Am I to understand that by putting this legislation on the Statute Book every police officer—after all, they are not lawyers—is to be briefed on these rather fine regulations and conditions so that he can deal properly with anyone he suspects to be suffering from defective eyesight? The word "suspects" is itself a very doubtful one, because suspicion is a subjective condition of the individual in whose breast suspicion lingers. The police are excellent men, but often they have more than a natural amount of suspicion on all sorts of things.

Many motorists who, quite rightly, are pulled up for a small technical offence become excited when they get into conversation with a police officer and begin to argue. Then the police officer who has taken a particular interest in traffic regulations goes through a number of things, such as the testing of brakes, steering and mechanical parts of the car. As a result, instead of being faced with one charge at the local police court, the motorist may find himself faced with a multiplicity of charges on a number of technicalities embodied in the legislation.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

Why not?

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Price

I agree with my right hon. Friend, but we do not want to make it easy for the people who send us here to be subjected to unnecessary testing and checks on all kinds of technical points.

Eyesight is not only a physical condition of the eyes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange said, this question is often affected by the time of day and other circumstances, such as the man's health at the time. I think that enough has been said to justify the feeling that perhaps this provision is too widely drawn. We should add a safeguard, so that a man who questioned the test made by a policeman could have his sight tested by someone who is qualified to carry out such a test.

I am not trying to quibble or to split hairs, but even the most highly-qualified optician knows that his patient ultimately does the testing himself. He has to answer the question about what he can see, even in the surgery. I hope that I have expressed my doubts temperately. I am not satisfied that this proposal as at present drawn would produce an equitable and completely justifiable aspect of the law. I think that it would be unevenly administered.

It is often said that a grave defect of magistrates is that, with all their virtues, they do not administer the law evenly. It is possible for a magistrate to be suffering from a "hang-over", or to be in a rather cantankerous state. How much easier is it for a policeman, questioning a motorist on some other matter, suddenly to remember that in the police station the week before there was a lecture about defective eyesight among motorists. He might then try himself out to see how good he is as an eyesight tester.

I do not wish to labour this, but, even though we are at a late stage of consideration of the Bill, the Government ought to see whether they can bring more equity and justice to bear in relation to this Clause, which otherwise, on general principle, I support because I believe that it will lead to greater safety on the roads.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I hope that the Minister will not be weary in well doing because of the criticism that he has met. We dealt with this matter in Committee and it was generally agreed that good eyesight was one of the essentials for being a good driver. If one had not got it, either with or without spectacles, one had no right on the road, because then one would be not only a danger to oneself but to pedestrians and other users. I take it that we are all agreed that something of this kind should go into the Bill.

I listened with interest to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths). He is an expert on this matter. It may be that the Clause needs tightening up in certain directions. Perhaps, in order to make progress, the Minister, without promising anything, could say that he will have another look at it and that, if necessary, something will be inserted in another place. [An HON. MEMBER: "The Bill has been there."] In that case, I should rather have this wording than no wording. I understand that a constable or police officer would not make an immediate test on the road.

Mr. Hay

He would.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I thought that, normally, he would make arrangements for an occulist to make a test under the supervision of a police surgeon or someone else and that evidence of that kind would be conclusive. Nevertheless, I repeat that I would rather have this form of words—which, I am sure, will be used with circumspection—than no form of words at all.

Mr. Mellish

I must sympathise with the Parliamentary Secretary in that this is the third occasion on which, having responded to a request in Committee to come forward with a necessary Clause, he has been criticised in some respects for doing so.

I want to get this point clear, in view of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths). Suppose that a constable pulls up a man driver who has been involved in a minor collision and suspects that his eyesight is faulty. He says to the driver, "I want you to read those figures, 25 yards away." The constable then decides that the driver is unable to read them. Surely, in a court of law, the constable's submission could be challenged. If it were then shown by a professional man that the driver fulfilled the conditions, the constable's evidence would be invalid. Surely it would not follow that because the constable said that at a certain time on a certain day he asked the man to read a sign 25 yards away, and he was unable to do so, that would be sufficient for him to be found guilty. When the driver came into the court the case could be argued, and if he could prove that his eyesight was adequate for him to have a driving licence, and that he was able to read a sign at 25 yards, that would deal with the matter.

I am not a lawyer, but I hope that the Clause really means that it gives the constable a right to test a driver's sight and that if the driver is unable to read figures at 25 yards he should be open to prosecution. If the court then decided that the driver was unable to fulfil the test he should not be allowed to drive.

Mr. Hay

The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), supported by the hon. Member for West-houghton (Mr. J. T. Price), began a series of questions which I have now to answer by querying the use of the words in subsection (2): … having reason to suspect … I have here a long and, I hope, a fairly respectable list of precedents where this phrase, or something very similar, has been used in Statutes going back as far as the Metropolitan Police Act, 1839.

I shall not weary the House by trying to quote them all. It is a fairly well-known phrase, and it has been used a great deal in our legislation. I think that the answer to the point, which I am giving more or less "off the cuff", is that we are concerned in subsection (2) with a separate offence to that envisaged in subsection (1).

Subsection (1) makes it an offence to drive at a time when one's eyesight does not comply with the standard. Subsection (2), on the other hand, gives a constable, having reason to suspect that an offence under subsection (1) has been committed, power to impose the test. If hon. Members will look at the concluding words of subsection (2) they will see that it says: … if that person refuses to submit to the test he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds. That is a separate offence. I would have thought that whether or not the constable had reasons to suspect was an important point for the defendant to raise by way of defence if he were prosecuted for an offence under subsection (2).

Mr. S. Silverman

Would not that be putting the onus the wrong way round? If the Clause makes it necessary for the constable to have reason to suspect before he can call upon the motorist to submit to a test, it ought to be part of his duty to satisfy the court that he really had reason to suspect.

I am wondering, not as a matter of law but of practice, what kind of thing would give a constable reason to suspect that a man could not see. One could conceive that that could arise should an accident happen, but that is something quite different. Apart from that, what would give the constable reason to suspect?

Mr. Hay

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman, because he has pinpointed in the first part of his intervention the point that I was trying to make. Although I said just now that it would be open to the defendant to raise this as a matter of his defence, it would be, of course, for the court to satisfy itself, presumably on the evidence produced by the prosecution, namely, by the constable in the witness box, that he had reason to suspect.

What would be the circumstances under which the constable would have reason to suspect? The hon. Gentleman has mentioned one, where an accident takes place and the constable has reason to think that it has perhaps happened because the driver of one of the vehicles has not sufficiently good sight. There may be, for example, a case where a constable saw a vehicle being driven in circumstances which made it apparent that the driver could not see very well. He may have been acting in a very erratic way. The possibilities are numerous and we have tried to cover them.

I think that we should leave the Clause fairly wide to give the constable the power, which he has not today, of putting a driver whom he thinks cannot see properly through a simple rudimentary test at the time when the constable thinks that this is the situation. I should add, because it was a point raised by the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Gtenvil Hall) as to the time that the test should take place, that we envisage that it would normally take place at the time when the constable had reason for suspicion, namely, at the roadside.

If it were an accident which happened at night, obviously it would not be possible for the test to take place at that time, but the Clause is wide enough to allow the test to be taken at some other time when the atmosphere or physical conditions prevail which prevailed at the time when the test was first taken, namely, when the licence was taken out. We have complete flexibility and width here and this is what we really want.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths) was concerned particularly with the question of a driver whose eyesight had deteriorated either during the currency of his licence or, more likely, during a particular period of the day. I say frankly to the House that this can only be a rough and ready arrangement that we are putting forward in this Clause. It would not be possible to do anything more, unless we were prepared to commit ourselves to having very detailed and regular eyesight tests, with all sorts of scientific tests with which the hon. Gentleman is more familiar than I am, practically every day of the week. That, I think, would be going much too far.

All that we have on hand is a rough and ready test of a person being able to see a number plate at 25 yards in daylight. This is the test we propose for that purpose. If it happens that during the currency of a man's licence, which the House should remember is now three years and not one year, his eyesight has deteriorated and no longer fulfils the standard application required when he took out the licence, then the law is quite clear he suffers from a prescribed disease under a particular passage of the Road Traffic Act and that is itself ground for taking the licence away.

I have had one or two cases in my own experience of the Ministry where appeals have been made because a licence has been taken away. The situation so far as that is concerned is that if the test showed that the man's eyesight since he took out his last licence had deteriorated, the constable would be quite right in putting him through a test, and if the test showed that his eyesight was bad his licence would be taken away; and under subsection (1) an offence would have been committed as well.

It may seem a little hard if the person does not know that his eyesight has deteriorated, but I think that the number of cases in which people's eyesight deteriorates to that extent and they do not know that they cannot read a number plate at 25 yards is very small. I can imagine a situation arising in which, perhaps due to illness or a temporary breakdown in health, someone's eyesight deteriorated suddenly, but then I think that any normal driver would notice that it was happening, would realise that something was going wrong with his sight, and would not drive. In all the circumstances, I do not think that we can go very much further than the new Clause proposes.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. W. Griffiths

I do not want to weary the House with technical arguments, but I should like to take the opportunity of saying that I agree entirely with the need for drivers to have good eyesight. I also appreciate that the new Clause must be drafted to permit rudimentary tests. It is, however, astonishing, in practice, to note the number of people who are convinced that their eyesight is quite adequate and are truly astounded when they find that it is not.

I agree that if there is a sudden deterioration from good sight to really bad sight, a person of average intelligence would notice it and would seek advice, but there are many people on the borderline who can just pass the 25-yard test and whose eyesight in the course of twelve months may deteriorate marginally—enough for them to fail the test. I wonder whether we could provide them with an opportunity, in view of the deterioration, to have a check after a time limit has been set. But I reiterate that I agree that the driver's eyesight should be adequate, and I appreciate that the Clause must be drawn to permit this rudimentary test.

Mr. Hay

I appreciate the point which the hon. Member made, and which he made earlier. If there were a simple way of doing it, we should be only too willing to do it, but we face two difficulties. First, I am not sure that there is a simple way, or any way, of doing it. In any event, this is the last stage of the Bill in this House, and since it came from another place, the opportunity of amending it is non-existent

Mr. Mellish

The Bill has to go to another place, which gives another chance to amend it if the Minister wishes to look at this Clause again.

Mr. Hay

The only way in which I can see that happening would be if the House inserted the new Clause which I have moved and another place disagreed with the House in that new Clause, in which case there would be a conflict between the two Houses and all sorts of complications would arise which I do not think any of us would welcome at this stage of the Session.

If the House will give us the Clause, we shall watch the position very carefully and if, in the course of time, it is apparent that further adjustments to it are needed, we shall take a suitable opportunity of amending the law. Equally, it is a matter which would perhaps be suitable for private legislation. But I think that there is no dispute in the House about this: we want to do something along the lines of this provision, and I suggest that we should put it into the Bill and see how it goes over the next few years. If it appears that adjustment is needed, Parliament can always intervene again. There is no party difficulty about this; it is a fairly non-controversial point. I therefore hope that the House will accept the new Clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.