Meg Munn: Why bad eyesight is a major hazard on the road

WHEN it became compulsory to pass a test in order to legally drive in the 1930s, my dad was growing up in Sheffield.

As a boy, his life would be almost unrecognisable to his teenage grandchildren. No TV, no computers, no mobile telephones and his mum didn’t have the benefit of an automatic washing machine.

Considering the changes that have occurred since then, it’s astonishing the eyesight test used to obtain a driving licence remains the same.

It’s common sense that drivers need good eyesight in order to drive safely, but the eyesight test introduced 70 years ago is no longer fit for purpose.

This was brought home to me when a constituent got in touch following the tragic death of her niece who was killed by a driver whose eyesight was seriously impaired.

Constituent Joy Barnes’s niece, Fiona, was crossing the road, and as witnesses reported, was hit by a car which did not attempt to overtake or brake. It drove straight into her. She suffered a major head injury and broke her pelvis, spine and leg. She died in hospital six weeks later from multi-organ failure.

Police officers tested the 87-year-old driver’s eyesight and he could not read a car number plate from the required distance of 20.5 metres. He was later found to have cataracts in both eyes which had probably been there for 18 months.

A doctor said it would give him “foggy or hazy” sight which could have rendered Fiona almost invisible to him. He also suffered from age-related macular degeneration, which blurs the central vision.

The UK has an enviable record on road safety. Whether through inventions such as cat’s eyes or the introduction of compulsory wearing of seat belts, it has been achieved by making changes. A 70-year-old driving eyesight test is no longer acceptable and must be brought up to date.

There are significant problems with the current driving eyesight test. The number plate test only measures the ability to see at a distance. It does not produce consistent results and can be affected by environmental conditions. Drivers can fail the test in different lighting or weather conditions.

It does not test what is known as visual field – the ability to see around while looking straight ahead. Visual field loss can advance significantly without a person becoming aware of a problem. Glaucoma is just one condition where it is possible to pass a number plate test but to have insufficient field vision.

Following their original test drivers of cars, small vans and motorbikes don’t have to take any form of eye test to keep their licence for the rest of their life. Only if they themselves report a serious vision impairment to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) will a new eye test be needed.

When reaching their 70th birthday, drivers are asked to confirm they have acceptable vision to renew their licence, but they are not required to prove this.

Compared to the 1930s, a driver today will see many more vehicles on the roads with many more hazards to negotiate. In addition research shows that one in six drivers cannot see well enough to pass a very basic eyesight test. People who are reluctant to give up their driving licence cannot be relied upon to inform the authorities if they have eyesight problems.

Unlike with the tragic death of Fiona, it is not always possible to directly attribute poor eyesight to many road accidents. Eyesight is just one of the factors that may be involved – others may include the time of day, the weather, condition of the road and tiredness. However, it is commonsense that poor vision will impair any driver’s performance, even taking into account all other conditions.

Good eyesight is a fundamental safety requirement for drivers and we need a scientifically recognised method for testing eyesight which replaces the number-plate tests. Ensuring that drivers continue to have adequate vision requires eyesight testing to be mandatory at regular intervals.

Drivers should have to provide proof that they have had their eyes tested by a medical professional, and that they meet minimum standards for visual acuity and visual field on a regular basis. This should happen at least every 10 years, coinciding with drivers renewing their photo card.

Road deaths wreck lives. Not just those killed and their family and friends but the drivers too; they have to live with the knowledge of what they have done. I am pressing the Government to act on the professional advice; advice which commands support among drivers, and change the driving test to ensure that all drivers can see what lies ahead of them while on the road.

Meg Munn is the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley.