HC Deb 28 May 1965 vol 713 cc1138-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. George Rogers.]

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)

Earlier this week the road casualty figures for the month of March were published by the Ministry of Transport. During that month, we killed on average on our roads, 19 people a day. In addition, every day 1,000 people were injured, 250 of those seriously. At this rate, there will be over 400,000 casualties on our roads next year and more than 7,000 people will lose their lives. Bearing these figures in mind, it is interesting to compare the difference in public interest between road accidents and murder.

I welcome this opportunity of calling attention to what I believe is an important factor in accident causation, namely, defective eyesight. The Parliamentary Secretary will tell us that accidents are caused through many factors. We all know that congestion of vehicles is increasing daily and that average speeds are rising. This means that there are more vehicles with which to have accidents and less time in which to avoid them.

In its paper entitled "Road Traffic Accidents" the World Health Organisation recently reported in these words: The proportion of road accidents which is directly due to defective vision in a road user is not known. It is, however, evident that defective vision, depending on the degree and kind of the defect, may add to the difficulties of a driver or pedestrian, and is likely to be a contributory cause in a proportion of road accidents. I should have thought that this was fairly obvious because driving is clearly a visually dominated skill. Vision is a prime necessity to a driver. No other function is so important to him.

Over a number of years I have represented people in minor cases of driving offences before magistrates' courts, and I have been impressed by how often a defendant will say, "I just did not see him". This does not mean that he is necessarily a bad or careless driver. He might be an extremely careful driver suffering from a defect in vision. It is because I have felt for a long time that the regulations are not satisfactory that I raise this matter today.

The present standards date back to 1935, which is 30 years ago, and the test is ability to read a number plate with six symbols at a distance of 25 yards in reasonable daylight. Because of the slightly smaller registration symbols now—3⅛ ins. instead of 3½ ins.—the distance has now been reduced to 67 feet. This is a very rudimentary rough and ready test. For example, one does not know what the expression "in good daylight" means.

This standard has remained fixed since 1935, but in 1962 Section 42 was brought into the Road Traffic Act making it an offence for a person to drive a vehicle while his sight is of such a standard that he is unable to comply with the requirements. Power was given to a police officer to require a person to submit to a test if he had reason to suspect that the person was guilty of this offence. I should be interested to know from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport whether that Section 42 has been useful over the last three years and how many convictions have resulted from it.

The test we have is simply one of acuity, or sharpness of vision. I do not wish to become at all technical, but, as I understand the position, visual acuity is tested by reading symbols at varying distances. Tests are carried out at a distance of six metres. A person with normal vision is described as having visual acuity of 6/6. If a person can only see a symbol twice the normal size at six metres his visual acuity is 6/12. If the symbol is ten times the normal size the visual acuity is 6/60. Converted into practical terms, the visual acuity of a normal person, that is 6/6, means that a person can see letters 3½ ins. high at 200 feet. If the visual acuity is 6/9 he can see only those letters at 134 feet. Under our present regulations the required standard requires a visual acuity of between 6/12 and 6/15.

London Transport insist that all drivers have in at least one eye a visual acuity of 6/9 without glasses. Further if the vision of the best eye is not worse than 6/12, and the applicant takes the neces- sary steps and has glasses to improve his vision, he will be accepted provided that his visual acuity is brought up to 6/9. Ministry of Transport signs on the road normally have letters 3½ ins. in height. Therefore a person with a visual acuity of 6/15 would see those letters 75 feet away. If he were travelling at a speed of 50 m.p.h., this would represent one second.

I have tried to obtain information from other countries of the tests which they apply. They vary a great deal, as one would expect, in their requirements. In America many States require a visual acuity of 6/9 and some even of 6/6, and many require more comprehensive tests and also provide for periodic testing.

The National Ophthalmic Treatment Board Association, which is a voluntary body sponsored by the British Medical Association, considers that the acceptable standard today of visual acuity should be 6/9. In July 1964, the Association wrote to the Minister of that time informing him of this. In the reply which was given the Minister said that his Ministry was embarking on studies of the extent to which physical defects contributed to road accidents. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us whether he has any information to give the House about this study and if he can say whether among the Ministry's team of experts there are some ophthalmic practitioners. I should have thought that it would have been useful to have some. Could the Parliamentary Secretary give us some sort of interim report and let us know whether the Ministry has formed any view as to whether the medical standards should now be revised.

The second proposal put forward by the N.O.T.B. is that testing should also include a test of the range of vision. In a New York State some years ago 400 drivers who had each had four accidents in the preceding five years were examined and it was found that 58 per cent. of them had serious tunnel vision. All hon. Members will know that a wide range of vision is essential in driving. If one fails to see the ball that comes out into the road ahead of one, then one will not pull up in time to avoid knocking down the child who is running out after the ball.

In America a very simple screening test is carried out which not only tests acuity but also peripheral vision. This test is known as a "confrontation" test and its intention is to find out the width or extent of a person's visual field. I believe that it would be possible to have this sort of test made compulsory in this country. I do not say that it need be carried out by doctors or even by opticians. I think it could be arranged, if necessary, through the National Health Service. It would also be possible to arrange for the test to be carried out by people without medical training. It could be carried out, if necessary, by police officers or other officials. The test would only take a few minutes to carry out, but the really important point is that it would undoubtedly reveal that a number of applicants had certain defects of vision and that with treatment these defects could be cured.

If an applicant fails this short test he could then be referred to a doctor or optician for full eye examination and the doctor would tell him what steps to take in order to correct his vision. He may have to wear corrected lenses. In America, where such requirements are made, an endorsement is placed on the licence to this effect. I have here an American licence on which the restriction on its holder is described in the following words: This licence is valid only when the holder wears corrective lenses. I should have thought that this was a wise precaution. If such a man is asked for his licence and is not wearing spectacles, then he has committed an offence.

I wonder how many hon. Members have had a formal eye test, or how many of us carry out this rudimentary test before we write the word "Yes" at the bottom of the application form which asks if we can see these symbols at 25 yards. People write in "Yes" in answer to the question, and their word is accepted in practically every case without query.

One final point and this is in regard to periodical tests. The fact is that the standard of eyesight of people is not constant. Because one is able to pass a test today, it does not follow that in five year's time one will pass the test. Many States in American insist on periodic testing at the same time as a man renews his licence. In this country we renew licences every three years, and I suggest that that might be an appropriate interval between tests, so that we can make certain that our eyes are kept up to the proper standard. Incidentally, in some states in America there are provisions to make licences renewable on one's birthday. I regard this as a rather sensible provision. Many of us forget to renew our licences, but, if we knew that on our birthday our driving licence had to be renewed, we should be less likely to forget.

I want the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us what progress he has to report on the researches by his Department and whether—this is most important—he is now in a position to give us any figures as to the relationship between driving accidents and defective eyesight. This is a most complicated subject. I do not feel that I can carry it further in an Adjournment debate, but I believe it to be a subject about which the public generally is deeply interested and concerned.

4.15 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

The hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) has raised an important subject on the Adjournment today. I think that I have probably had more detailed notice of the points which he intended to raise than in the previous 24 Adjournment debates to which I have replied up to now in this Session. Not only did he take trouble to give me careful note of the points which he wished to raise, but he gave his speech a kind of dress rehearsal on the B.B.C. this morning in the programme "Today". Therefore, I am well informed of the issues which he has in mind.

I follow what the hon. Gentleman said and refer to the fact that we are now approaching the second main holiday period of the year. He reminded the House and, I hope the public of the appalling accident record over the first holiday period of 1965, which followed upon the shocking figures for 1964. Any contribution from any quarter towards raising the standard of road safety will be welcomed by my Department and by the public at large. This occasion is useful as a reminder to drivers in general of the importance of proper standards of vision and eyesight in driving.

The eyesight test incorporated in the present driving test requires ability to read, in daylight, and with the aid of spectacles, if necessary, a number plate of normal size at a distance of 25 yards. This has been amended for the new seven-symbol number plates with slightly smaller characters to a distance of 67 ft., which represents the same standard of eyesight. When a driver renews his licence, he must state whether he can comply with this standard, which is clearly specified on the form of application.

The law prescribes two offences relevant to the question of standard of vision. Under the Road Traffic Act, 1960, as amended, it is an offence to make any false declaration to obtain a driving licence, and this applies, of course, to a false declaration about one's eyesight. Here, the maximum penalty, I should remind drivers, is a fine of £100 or four months' imprisonment, or both. Moreover, as the hon. Gentleman said, Section 42 of the Road Traffic Act, 1962, makes it an offence to drive on the road with eyesight which is not up to the standard, or without any necessary glasses. The maximum penalty in this case is a £50 fine or three months' imprisonment, or both. These are serious penalties. In addition, under this Section the police have power to test the sight of anyone they suspect of committing an offence, and there is a fine of up to £50 for refusing to be tested on the road.

It may well be that the provisions of the law in these respects are not sufficiently widely known to the public, but they do represent a considerable safeguard against drivers with defective eyesight.

I turn now to the specific points which the hon. Gentleman raised. The question is: is the standard laid down—which, as he said, has been maintained in this country over a long period—still adequate? We have no evidence to show that changes in driving conditions over the years have made any difference to the demands made on drivers' eyesight. Nor have we at present any evidence of a relationship between eyesight defects and accidents which might suggest that the current standard for eyesight tests is inadequate.

The Road Research Laboratory, which is now part of the Ministry of Transport, are engaged on a study of this question. They are assembling—and it is a difficult task—and analysing all the material available both in this country and abroad on visual acuity, visual field, colour vision, depth perception and night vision as factors in road accidents. The next step in their researches, which are not complete, will depend on the findings of this important study. Should the final outcome of the Laboratory's researches suggest that the current standard of eyesight is inadequate, the next step will be to determine what a revised standard should be and then how it should be applied.

The hon. Member criticised the fact that the current standard is a simple test of visual acuity, unlike tests in some other countries. It is maintained that it has advantages for this very reason. It means that drivers can, and should, test themselves before signing their licence renewal application forms. He spoke of periodic tests. There should be periodic tests voluntarily by drivers before filling in their application forms and declaring that their eyesight is efficient for the purposes of driving. Similarly, constables can easily test drivers on the road under their powers in Section 42 of the 1962 Act.

It is clear that any arrangements for the comprehensive testing of applicants for driving licences would be costly and complex, and our present view is that the trouble involved would not be justified when it is a simple and straightforward matter for drivers to apply the test periodically to themselves. What is required is the highest standard of honesty among drivers when filling in the forms and making declarations for the purpose of getting licences.

The hon. Member provided evidence from other countries about the endorsement of visual needs on licences. An Amendment to this end was moved in the House in 1962 in the discussion of what has become the Road Traffic Act. We agree that the objective is laudable, but the endorsement suggested in our view would be too imprecise and unreliable to be capable of satisfactory enforcement.

For example, the sight of a person who has been prescribed suitable glasses may deteriorate unknown to himself so that he is unaware that his vision even with the spectacles has become substandard. An endorsement on the licence would not necessarily help the police in respect of the quality of the driver's eyesight. Conversely, a person's vision may improve. A system of this kind would have to provide for the removal of the endorsement from time to time.

What matters is the actual standard of vision which a driver has at the time of driving. In the case of a driver with defective eyesight corrected by glasses, this depends, obviously, on the prescription of the glasses. Thus, the endorsement would serve a useful purpose only if this prescription were also shown on the licence so that the police could check that the glasses worn conformed to it. This would clearly be a complicated arrangement, and, therefore, we conclude that it is more satisfactory to rely on the power of constables under Section 42 of the Act to test on the spot the eyesight of drivers if they suspect that it is below standard.

I turn to the important question of the relationship between defective eyesight and accidents. It would be very difficult to draw statistical conclusions at the moment about the extent to which defective eyesight contributes to accidents. Most accidents are caused by a number of interacting factors, and it is often extremely difficult to determine whether any particular factor is concerned and, if so, what is its relative importance in the causation of accidents.

The whole question of the analysis of accidents is extremely complicated. Detailed and expert investigation of a sample of accidents may sometimes be necessary to establish how far any one factor may be an important contributing cause. While there is at present no evidence to suggest a relationship between defective eyesight and road accidents, investigations into the possibility are now under way.

Both the Road Research Laboratory Accident Investigation Unit, which includes an expert in ophthalmology, and the Metropolitan Police Accident Research Branch are testing the vision of people involved in the accidents they are studying. The assembly by this means of sufficient evidence to form definite conclusions may take a considerable time, but it is hoped that, in due course, we will be able to provide some statistical conclusions about the role of eyesight defects in the causation of accidents.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of the use of Section 42—driving with defective eyesight and the power of a constable to carry out sight tests. Separate figures for offences under Section 42 were not maintained before 1964. That year was the first for which we shall have these statistics and I am informed by the Home Office, the responsible Department, that the figures will be available in about two months' time.

I think that it will be agreed that there is a lot to be said in favour of maintaining a comparatively simple and straightforward test of eyesight for drivers such as we and some other countries have, and, until we have overwhelming evidence to the contrary, of relying on the voluntary good will and common sense of drivers to test themselves periodically in this respect because of the risk and dangers they otherwise incur.

We in the Ministry, together with the Road Research Laboratory, are always ready to listen to the views and suggestions of responsible bodies on this question, to consider any evidence that can be provided to us—for we appreciate that we are lacking sufficient evidence to form clear conclusions on some aspects—and to keep the standards and requirements for drivers' eyesight under constant consideration in the interests of road safety.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock.