Road Safety (HC 460-iv)
Transport Committee 21 May 2008
Evidence given by Play England, Adrian Voce, Director; Help the Aged, David Sinclair, Head of Policy; Living Streets, Tony Armstrong, Chief Executive; CTC, the national cyclists' organisation, Roger Geffen, Campaigns & Policy Manager; Department for Transport, Jim Fitzpatrick MP; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Mike Fawcett, Head of Road User Safety Division.
Q329 Mr. David Clelland: What needs to be done to reduce the level of casualties involving older drivers?
Mr Sinclair: Clearly, road safety is extremely important for all age groups. There is no evidence that older drivers are any more dangerous than any other age groups.
Q330 Mr. David Clelland: I did not say that. I said that the level of casualties was higher than for most other drivers?
Mr Sinclair: That comes down mainly to the issue of frailty. In many ways the solutions will be no different from what we are talking about for other age groups, that is, slower and safer roads and environments which facilitate slower and better driving and enforcement of existing regulations.
Q331 Mr. David Clelland: Are you aware of any schemes that provide older people with alternatives to using the car?
Mr Sinclair: There are not very many around. A couple of pilot schemes offer refresher driving courses but they tend to be very small in scale.
Q332 Mr. David Clelland: For example, there is free travel.
Mr Sinclair: Of course. Clearly, the opportunities for an individual to move to public transport are made a lot easier by concessionary fares and free public transport. We would argue that concessionary fares or free local transport are of little use if there is no local bus or someone has a disability and cannot get onto the local bus. Therefore, there is a need for flexible alternatives. We argue there is a strong case for local authorities to offer an alternative to the bus pass such as value against taxis or other forms of transport which will potentially help people make that move. Clearly, older people like any other age group have every right to drive as long as they are safe to do so.
Q333 Mr. David Clelland: You say "as long as they are safe to do so". All of us have an interest in this; old age will come to all of us. Does the current system rely too heavily on the honesty of the driver to notify the DVLA that he or she is unfit to drive?
Mr Sinclair: The research shows that the current system seems to work very well and when individuals recognise they are becoming more vulnerable they tend to make strategic decisions about how they drive, or they stop driving at night, or they drive on routes they know. At the first stage people start to do that. I am sorry but I have forgotten the last part of the question.
Q334 Mr. David Clelland: At the moment the DVLA relies on drivers themselves to decide whether or not they are fit to drive. Should there not be some other way to measure it?
Mr Sinclair: We would not object to the increased use of healthcare professionals if appropriate, but we would ask why one should target older drivers as opposed to every age group. Why not do it in 10-year bands? Is it right for me as someone in my mid-thirties who has not driven for 10 years to get on the road in a new car without having a retest? One comes to the issue of age-related disabilities. Clearly, there are certain conditions associated with increasing age. If one looks at the DfT evidence on the causes of accidents, dementia or other conditions feature in only in a small number of cases; they are not the main factors.
Q335 Mr. David Clelland: Another matter which is related mainly to elderly people is the increasing use of mobility scooters. Obviously, there is an issue with these machines. They give mobility and freedom to a lot of people and no one wants to restrict that, but there is an issue about their interaction with pedestrians, other road users and access or otherwise to public transport. Do you have any evidence on that?
Mr Sinclair: It is a very interesting matter and it will certainly grow as we have an aging population. We already have 11,000 people over 100 and the aging population is set to grow significantly. This issue almost never comes up through our networks. Interestingly, the only time it is ever really raised is through the media. I was interested to see the DfT's supplementary evidence which highlights research in 2004 showing that there is one reported incident involving a wheelchair or scooter owner in a major shopping centre for every 15 million visitors. What we know is that with an aging population more and more people will be using these. I agree with the DfT's line that it is absolutely worth monitoring this issue as we go forward to see whether or not the increasing numbers have an effect. It is difficult to find the evidence. I know that some Parliamentary Questions on statistics have been tabled. The statistics available on this issue are fairly poor. We would welcome recommendations to encourage the gathering of better statistics. In the European context it is interesting that very few countries have any regulation of these products. My main point is that we should not regulate or jump in until we know there is a problem. We welcome that debate when we have evidence that it is a significant problem.
Q339 Mr. David Clelland: How big a problem is drink driving now, and what should be done about it?
Mr Armstrong: From our point of view progress has been made and that is extremely welcome. Drink driving still accounts for a large proportion of deaths and serious accidents involving pedestrians. I think we need to look again at the limits and a zero tolerance approach would be welcome. We may not get it down to zero, but I think the limits should be reviewed. We also need to look again at enforcement and education. In many ways the drink driving awareness campaigns have been very successful and are a model for some of the speed-type campaigns. Perhaps we need to look at some of the modern social marketing techniques to see whether we can have an impact. Although generally it is socially unacceptable to drink and drive there are some key demographic groups who still regard it as okay, but because it is such a large proportion of avoidable accidents and deaths there must be increased focus on it.
Q340 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think there should be a zero limit?
Mr Armstrong: I am not a scientist and I do not know whether we can achieve that in any practical sense, but it should be as close to zero as possible and perhaps give some leeway for the previous night's drinking.
Q341 Mr. David Clelland: Does anyone else agree that there should be a zero limit or as near zero as possible?
Mr Geffen: We have supported other organisations in calling for a limit of 50 mg to bring us into line with continental Europe. We think there is a good case which should be looked at for a lower limit for younger or novice drivers.
Q342 Mr. David Clelland: You believe there should be an age differential?
Mr Geffen: It could be an experience differential; it could be novice drivers rather than young drivers.
Q343 Mr. David Clelland: What about the policing of it? If we are to have limits of any sort they are not much good if they are not policed. Should we have random breath tests? Is that something you advocate?
Mr Armstrong: Certainly, yes. We can probably make enforcement more targeted and look at what kinds of drivers are more likely to drink above the limit and at the areas where perhaps there are higher concentrations. Like one of the earlier answers, there is the deterrent effect of the fear of being caught rather than fear of the general consequences of it. If you know there will be spot checks in your area - for example, we see it at Christmas when there is greater advertising and enforcement - levels tend to decrease because you have a greater chance of being caught. If we can keep up that pressure the year round it will have an impact.
Q344 Mr. David Clelland: What about the related issue of drugs and driving? What can be done about that?
Mr Armstrong: As far as I can tell that is a growing issue. There is difficulty in measuring that. Certainly, a recommendation by this Committee about greater knowledge and evidence about that issue is important. Whether you can test for certain drugs in the same way you can test for alcohol I do not know, but it appears to be a growing issue and one that is not getting sufficient prominence.
Q345 Mr. David Clelland: We tend to concentrate our efforts on people who abuse either alcohol or drugs behind the wheel, but quite often people who wander the streets when drunk or high on drugs can also be a danger to traffic and themselves. Should that also be a matter where some kind of regulation, monitoring or policing should be brought in?
Mr Armstrong: This goes back to some of the earlier questions about road safety being very clearly in the centre of a number of different linked issues. The quality and sense of community in local neighbourhoods and town and city centres are very important matters. If there is effective policing and people feel that they are safe in their local neighbourhoods then everyone tends to behave in a slightly different way. It is not just about traffic-calming; it is also about making sure that people have vibrant areas that have mixed use. We need to look at our planning policies where we have 10 or 20 different bars, clubs and fast food joints all in one place. It attracts only a certain proportion of users of the city or town centre. You will hear particularly from middle-aged people that they feel they cannot go into town centres any more because, like the wild west, people will just be carousing around. That is the key issue that needs to be addressed as part of the overall problem.
Mr Sinclair: A linked issue in regard to drugs is the use of medication when driving. Very recently we conducted a survey of 1,000 older people about 80% of whom made the point that issuing a directive that GPs and pharmacists should be required to advise patients when giving a prescription that can affect ability to drive would be extremely important. On the other hand, there was also very much awareness in the survey by older people that if they were taking medication they had to inform the DVLA. There is very much awareness of that but clearly there could be additional support from the GP in informing someone that a drug may have an effect.
Q346 Mr. David Clelland: Who would that "someone" be?
Mr Sinclair: When the GP prescribed a drug to, say, an older person he would say that this might impact on his or her ability to drive.
Q347 Mr. David Clelland: But you do not necessarily suggest that the GP should inform DVLA?
Mr Sinclair: No. Our survey showed high awareness that individuals themselves were obliged to inform the DVLA if they began to take drugs which might affect their ability to drive, but better information and advice could be very useful to older people.
Q374 Mr. David Clelland: Is there a particular problem with older drivers?
Mr Fitzpatrick: It is not apparent to us that there is a particular problem with older drivers. We have said that we shall be consulting on health issues later this year which has led to some stories that we would introduce a compulsory retest for 70 year-olds. That is certainly not the case, and the statistics do not suggest that there is a particular risk element involved with older drivers. We are much more concerned with young and novice drivers and a variety of elements, whether it is drink driving, no seat belts, driving for work and so on, features disproportionately in the road safety casualty statistics.
Q375 Mr. David Clelland: As to those people who may feel that they are unfit to drive, is it adequate to rely on the honesty of drivers themselves to notify DVLA, or should there be some other way to measure whether or not people are fit to drive?
Mr Fitzpatrick: I do not think it is adequate to rely solely on self-reporting. We spend quite a bit of time reminding the medical profession about this and sending out guidance notes to GPs to say that if they are aware patients whom they believe not to be in a fit state to drive and they advise should not be driving and they realise in the course of conversation or personal observation that those individuals are driving we expect those GPs to report it to DVLA which in turn will take that on board and call in those individuals for medical assessment, or make the appropriate assessment based on the evidence that has been submitted. We do not rely totally on the individual. There is a lot of engagement with the medical profession and, I suspect, the Department of Health but certainly with the BMA and information from GPs' practices to alert them to the responsibility that we feel they have.
Q376 Mr. David Clelland: You say "responsibility". There is no duty on GPs to report in this way.
Mr Fawcett: I believe it is just a responsibility.
Mr Fitzpatrick: My understanding is that it is a responsibility.
Q377 Mr. David Clelland: There is growing use of mobility scooters which give a great deal of freedom to a lot of elderly and disabled people, but there is a problem with their interaction with pedestrians and other road users and access to public transport. Do you see any need perhaps for more regulation of the use of mobility scooters?
Mr Fitzpatrick: It is certainly not on our radar that the number of complaints, issues or concerns is such that it is a matter on which we need to look for regulation. I have read stories in the papers of people using them on motorways; and sometimes people run into difficulties on pavements. It certainly does not come across my desk as a matter that we should address at this point.
Q378 Mr. David Clelland: To what extent is there a shortage of road safety professionals?
Mr Fitzpatrick: In terms of engineering skills?
Q379 Mr. David Clelland: In terms of skills generally in the field of road safety. What kind of skill shortages do we have?
Mr Fitzpatrick: There is more anecdotal evidence than firm evidence about shortages of skills in terms of road safety and engineering from local authorities. The educational ministries and Learning and Skills Council are examining this and funding where they believe a shortage exists. We understand that it is becoming an issue, but it has not been in the forefront of our concerns so far.
Q380 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think there are sufficient road safety professionals who understand the particular needs of vulnerable road users?
Mr Fitzpatrick: What do you mean by "vulnerable road users"?
Q381 Mr. David Clelland: I am talking about elderly and disabled people who are more vulnerable than others on the road.
Mr Fitzpatrick: I would have hoped and expected that where accident statistics that demonstrate particular issues in terms of elderly people feature either on a particular road or area local authority road safety officers will spot this and deal with ourselves, the Highways Agency and the police however the matter has arisen. It is not something that has been brought to my attention ministerially as a matter that forms a pattern across the country that we ought to address.
Q382 Mr. David Clelland: I return briefly to the 20 mph zones. Would it not be an idea to have a national standard of 20 mph in residential areas except where it is indicated otherwise? Everyone then knows that whenever they go to a residential area there will be a 20 mph limit unless there is a sign in the road saying the speed is 30 mph?
Mr Fitzpatrick: I receive letters from parliamentary colleagues occasionally on behalf of constituents who complain that they have not seen a sign and have been reported for speeding. The standard answer we send back is that if it is a lit street it is a 30 mph zone. That is why we do not put 30 mph signs up everywhere. The cluttering of signage and so on is becoming a bit of a problem. In that case 20 mph zones have to be mapped out because they are different. As to whether we micro-manage that from Westminster, it has been the view of the department, to which I adhere, that local authorities know best where their vulnerable areas are, whether it is a shopping precinct, a school or park that kids use a lot and the nature of the rest of the local area. I have schools in my constituency that back onto four-carriageway roads. That side of the school has been shut off; kids are not allowed out that side. Because it is next to a school you would not want to have a 20 mph limit; it is appropriate to make it 30 mph. The local authority knows better than the Department for Transport what should be a 20 mph zone and what should be a 30 mph zone. That is why we have delegated it rather than seek to do it from the centre which we believe would be impossible.
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
The full transcript may be read here.
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