HL Deb 03 February 1992 vol 535 cc3-5

2.42 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are considering the introduction of compulsory eyesight testing for drivers over the age of 70.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, we believe that the present arrangements for the renewal of licences after the age of 70 make adequate provision for the possible deterioration of eyesight among older drivers.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that one of the difficulties is that people can be unaware that their eyesight is deteriorating? This was recently confirmed in the court case where a driver killed a woman, having knocked another woman down five months previously. Later he was judged by the police surgeon to have had deteriorating eyesight for 10 years. Yet one woman just escaped death and the other was killed and dragged along by the car. Does the Minister agree that compulsory testing at the age of 70 would involve no extra administrative work because all records for drivers are checked at that age? Nevertheless an earlier test may be necessary.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I quite agree that the incident to which my noble friend referred was an appalling incident. I should point out that the offender was aged 56. There is nothing to suggest that abuse of the law is widespread. It is an offence to drive without being able to pass the simple number plate test. The police can stop drivers they believe to have defective eyesight. At the age of 70 drivers have to apply for a new licence and they must fill in a form which contains specific reference to the quality of a driver's eyesight. They must be able to respond in the affirmative to questions on that subject.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, how does the vehicle accident rate of drivers over 70 compare with that of drivers aged under 25, for example?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, it is significant that drivers with the best eyesight, in other words young drivers, have the worst accident record.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I must first declare a personal interest in this Question. Is the Minister aware that Section 18 of the Road Traffic Act 1991 added three new provisions to the 1988 Act? When that was done, was any consideration given to the point the noble Baroness has just made and was any review undertaken before the alterations were made?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, changes may have been made to the legislation but the principle remains the same. It is an offence to drive a car unless one can pass the eyesight test, whether one is under or over 70. If one cannot pass the test, one should not drive.

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, in view of the fact that eyesight deteriorates with age, does my noble friend think it reasonable that once someone obtains a driving licence he does not have to undergo another eye examination for the rest of his days?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, drivers have to pass a simple test which consists of being able to read a number plate at a certain distance. That is a cheap and effective test and does not involve someone having to visit an optician and pay the fees incurred in such a visit. There is no reason to believe that most people are dishonest when they fill in their application forms for a new licence at the age of 70. I believe they must state that they can pass the eyesight test. If they cannot pass that test, they must take the required measures to enable them to pass it.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, the Minister has told us the police are empowered to request an eyesight test. Will the Minister encourage magistrates and those prosecuting offenders in court for dangerous driving or driving offences of any kind to ask for an eyesight test to be carried out if they feel the defendant has bad eyesight?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, at the moment there are around 300 prosecutions a year for eyesight offences. However, I shall certainly bear in mind my noble friend's remarks.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, in view of the fact that one is not necessarily aware that one's eyesight is deteriorating, and that the number plate test is undertaken only when a driving licence is first applied for, if the Government are unwilling to do anything in this matter will my noble friend consider recommending to insurance companies that they should demand that some kind of an eyesight test is carried out? After all, we all renew our insurance annually.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I hope I may correct my noble friend. The number plate test is not a test that one needs to pass only when one applies for a driving licence. Drivers are expected to be able to fulfil that eyesight standard at all times. The College of Ophthalmologists and the Association of Optometrists consider the test to be adequate for road safety purposes.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, as one who has passed the eyesight test within the past 10 days, I hope I may ask my noble friend whether he agrees that defective eyesight does not account for the vast majority of accidents. Does my noble friend accept that other forms of bad driving account for a greater proportion of accidents?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble and learned friend's remarks. There is no evidence to suggest that poor eyesight is a significant cause of road accidents. As I have said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, those who notionally have the best eyesight have the worst accident record.