Jim Shannon: Why it’s good to talk if you are a bus

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I AM delighted, on behalf of Guide Dogs, to propose a Bill to require the provision of audio announcements on public buses; I hope that it will at least help to raise awareness of the issue and the need for “talking buses”.

I also hope that this is something that we can start at Westminster and follow through in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The evidence from across the United Kingdom is overwhelming in support of introducing audio announcements on all UK buses, rather than just those in London. That is why I wanted to raise the issue, which affects all of us. I hope to see this brought in to every part of the United Kingdom in the coming months and years.

The Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000 and the related Northern Ireland regulations stated that new buses had to include certain features to make them accessible to people in wheelchairs, such as low floors and ramps. Unfortunately, that legislation did not go far enough. It did not include requirements to make buses accessible to people with sight loss. That is what this motion is about.

Unlike rail, where audio-visual announcements are required on all new trains, only 19 per cent of buses – the vast majority of them in London – provide next stop information for passengers. The Department for Transport reported that 97 per cent of buses with audio announcements were in the capital, which leaves only three per cent across the rest of the UK. That imbalance has to be addressed.

That means that the majority of blind passengers outside London have to rely on bus drivers to tell them when to get off. A visually impaired passenger in Glasgow claimed that the “common response to the request to let me off at a particular stop is ‘if I remember’ and a common outcome is that they do forget”.

Of course we cannot blame the bus drivers because it is not really their job to do that and, like all of us, they do sometimes forget. Guide Dogs’ 2014 “Destination Unknown” report shows that, without audio announcements, seven in 10 blind and partially sighted passengers have been forgotten on the bus.

For a sighted person, missing a bus stop can be an annoyance and an inconvenience, but for a person with sight loss it can be extremely distressing and even dangerous. The experience can put people off using buses; in fact 63 per cent of blind and partially sighted people stay at home at least twice a month instead of relying on the bus. That has to be addressed.

There are 360,000 people registered as blind or partially sighted in the UK, and over two million people living with sight loss. That is roughly one in 30 people we meet. With an ageing population and the increasing incidence of diabetes – something which, as a sufferer, I can understand – it is predicted that the blind or partially sighted population will reach four million by 2050. That is a vast number.

A Government survey showed that 37 per cent of disabled respondents found transport accessibility a significant barrier to work. Guide Dogs’ data reinforce those findings, which show that the lack of audio announcements led to people with sight loss missing job interviews, turning down jobs, being late for work or even losing a job. Given the current economic climate, no one can afford this.

Talking buses can also help to support older people, they can reinvigorate the bus industry by increasing the numbers of passengers, and they can bring environmental benefits with more 
people swapping the car for the bus. 
They can also attract tourists from both inside and outside the UK to use the buses. We cannot deny that audio announcements will help the tourist industry.

Last September, the Select Committee on Transport gave its support to talking buses. However, the Government’s response to its report was not quite so positive. They claimed there were three reasons why they could not make audio announcements mandatory; first, that they planned to increase voluntary uptake of these systems among bus operators; secondly that there was a fear of a financial burden on the industry; and, finally, that there was the possibility that smartphones might be an alternative.

We are all aware of the financial constraints Governments are facing now, but any economic costs are repaid by the benefits that audio announcements would bring.

• Jim Shannon is a MP for the Democratic Unionist Party. This is an edited version.