The House of Commons Transport Committee launched an inquiry into road safety in March 2019, looking into changes which could be introduced to reduce the number and severity of road traffic accidents.
The AOP’s response
How effective is the Government’s current approach to road safety?
We think the current rules on drivers’ vision are too weak. Poor vision causes many road accidents. We don’t know exactly how many, because accidents can be caused by a combination of factors, including tiredness and distraction, as well as poor vision, and there’s no requirement for a driver’s vision to be checked when an accident happens. In 2017, there were two fatal accidents and 51 serious accidents where ‘uncorrected, defective eyesight’ was recorded as a contributing factor1. But a 2012 study2 estimated that over 2,000 drivers in the UK were involved in accidents due to poor vision, causing nearly 3,000 casualties.
Currently, a driver’s vision is checked during their driving test, by reading a number plate from a distance of 20 metres. Thereafter, most drivers are never required to have another vision check ever again.
The current system relies on self-reporting; if a driver has an eye condition, they must report it to the DVLA and be tested to check they are safe to drive. Once a driver reaches the age of 70, they must complete a self-declaration to confirm they are fit-to-drive, which includes confirming their vision meets the legal standard, but they are not required to provide evidence of this.
This system is problematic for many reasons. Firstly, the number plate test isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of whether someone can drive safely because it does not check all the relevant aspects of visual function. So, someone may pass the number plate test without having good enough vision to drive safely. And the result of the test can’t be checked in a test environment with consistent results3,4. The number plate test should be replaced with a modern and reliable evaluation process.
Secondly, some eye conditions can be asymptomatic in their early stages, so drivers may not realise they have a problem. It is possible, for example, for someone with glaucoma to lose up to 40% of their vision without noticing5. Therefore, they may continue to drive, even though their reduced vision puts themselves and other road users at risk.
We also know that some drivers will continue to drive even if they know their vision is below the legal standard. The AOP carried out a survey of our members in 2017 which found that one in three optometrists had seen someone in the last month with vision below the legal standard but who continued to drive.
There have been several high-profile and tragic examples where drivers have known their vision is below the legal standard but continue to drive anyway. Poppy-Arabella Clarke was just three years old when she was tragically killed by a 72-year-old who drove through a red light at a pedestrian crossing, which he later told police he did not see. David Evans, 49, was killed by a 50-year-old driver whose vision was below the legal standard and who was ‘fully aware of his vision problems’. Natalie Wade, 28, was out shopping for her wedding dress when she was killed by a 78-year-old driver with vision below the legal standard. 86-year-old Ambrose Skingle was killed by an 87-year-old driver who lied to the DVLA about his sight problems to obtain his licence.
In 2011, 16-year-old Cassie McCord was killed by a driver with defective eye sight. The driver, who was 87, had been stopped by the police three days earlier, and after failing a roadside vision check, was told by the police to hand over his licence. The driver refused, and the police were powerless to do anything. Cassie’s mother campaigned for the police to have stronger powers and Cassie’s law was introduced in 2013, enabling police officers to revoke a driver’s licence immediately if they believe the driver represents a risk to themselves and other road users.
Are there any areas where the Government’s current approach to road safety could be improved?
For the reasons outlined above, we believe the current rules on driving and vision are too weak.
All drivers should be made aware of the importance of good eye sight as an aspect of road safety and encouraged to have regular sight tests, at least every two years.
As a fall-back, all drivers should be legally required to have their vision checked when they first apply for a licence, and when renewing their driving licence – every ten years for most people, and every three years for those over 70.
That check should involve standardised reliable tests, rather than the inadequate number plate test.
How can interventions to reduce the number and severity of road traffic accidents best be implemented?
As we have said, the current number plate test should be replaced with a modern and reliable evaluation process to check drivers’ vision. This check should then be made compulsory when a driver first obtains their driving licence, then every ten years when they renew their licence and every three years once they reach the age of 70. The Association of Optometrists would be happy to work with the Government to help take these changes forward.
1 Gov.uk. 2018. Contributory factors for reported road accidents (RAS50). [Online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/ras50-contributory-factors#excel-data-tables-for-ras50. [Accessed 11 March 2019] Table RAS50001 (Contributory factors: reported accidents by severity, Great Britain)
2 RSA Group. 2012. Fit to drive: a cost benefit analysis of more frequent eyesight testing for UK drivers [Online] Available at: https://www.roadsafetyobservatory.com/Evidence/Details/10808 [Accessed 12 April 2019]
3 Nature. 2003. Visual acuity and legal visual requirement to drive a passenger vehicle. [Online] Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/6700441. [Accessed 12 April 2019]
4 Owsley, C and McGwin Jr, G. 2010. Vision and Driving [Online] Available at: https://ac.els-cdn.com/S0042698910002531/1-s2.0-S0042698910002531-main.pdf?_tid=4d55d788-8e05-447f-9f37-08fd8819af4b&acdnat=1552663052_cc691879f8982f06d179c01dc6fbfc09 [Accessed 12 April 2019]
5 Sollitto, M. Glaucoma can steal 40% of vision before a person notices [Online] Available at: https://www.agingcare.com/articles/glaucoma-eye-disease-lead-to-blindness-149177.htm [Accessed 12 April 2019]