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Mandatory driver eye tests will reduce close passes, says cycling cop

Laura Laker
1 Feb 2019

One in 20 drivers pulled over for cyclist close passes fail basic eye test, and mandatory testing could reduce danger from older drivers

Cycling police officers have called for mandatory driver eye testing every five years after one in 20 people pulled over in an operation targeting drivers who overtake cyclists too close failed roadside eye tests. Those who failed the test were mainly over the age of 60.

West Midlands Police officers Mark Hodson and Steve Hudson pioneered close pass cycling operations, where plain clothed officers on bikes are used to detect poor overtaking. Hodson says with most Birmingham drivers now aware of the operation, they are increasingly stopping drivers who either don’t see the officers on bikes, or are drunk or on drugs.

Hodson wants families to report unfit drivers before they crash, putting cyclists and pedestrians particularly at risk. Many drivers the officers stopped were unable to read a number plate at 7.5m, around a third of the required 20m. 

‘I would like to see mandatory eye testing every five years for every driver,’ says Hodson, adding that an ageing population and more and younger people being diagnosed with type II diabetes, which can affect vision, was ‘a recipe for disaster’ when it comes to safe driving.

‘They will kill someone eventually. The only reason they will stop driving otherwise is when they have a bump. It can’t go on any more.’

Hodson, Hudson and colleagues pulled over 218 drivers in 2017, and 89 in 2018, most of whom are aged over 40, and 5% of whom failed to read a number plate at 20m. Drivers the officers report to the DVLA immediately lose their license until they can prove they are fit to drive. According to the Association of Optometrists around 2,900 road casualties per year are caused by poor vision, and the organisation recommends an eye test every two years. 

At present the only visual test for drivers is reading a number plate at 20m. Drivers over age 70 are required to self-report their ability to drive every three years, which campaigners say means some people keep driving when they shouldn’t, while others stop driving prematurely. Otherwise, drivers are not required to take a test unless they crash or commit a driving offence. Drivers aged over 70 make up around 12 per cent of all full car driving license holders, with the number growing all the time.

Cycling UK, the national cycling charity, would like to see regular tests of drivers’ visual field and acuity, which decline over time. Cycling UK’s Duncan Dollimore says, ‘We know visual perception starts to go and drivers also fail to judge speed as they age.

‘It’s not only vision, it’s your peripheral vision and your ability to translate what you see. The [current] eye test is a bit binary.’

Vision can deteriorate slowly, making it difficult to detect changes over time without a professional eye test, and one common difficulty for older drivers is the ‘Prince Philip manoeuvre’, pulling from a side road to a main road. 

Close pass operation

Hodson says the close pass operation, started by West Midlands Police in 2016, and since adopted by police forces across the country, uniquely picks up drunk or drug-affected drivers, at around 2% of those stopped. 

‘We pick up a number of high functioning alcoholics in the morning, blowing three times over the legal limit.

‘It’s quite scary, because I’m on the bike most of the time, and I never really thought of it until we started doing this. You think when someone comes too close, "Oh, they aren’t a cyclist," but they could be drunk as a skunk or they haven’t seen you.

‘We did a job on a very busy road where there were two fatalities, and we pulled someone over, and she said, "What cyclist?" There was a skip wagon coming the other way but she didn’t deviate in her position on the road at all.’

An argument commonly used against testing older drivers is they are less likely to crash than younger drivers. Dollimore calls this a ‘bit of a cop out’.

‘They are still a higher risk than middle age drivers,’ he says.

Although older drivers are not as risky as young drivers, the collision rate increases gradually from age 66, more steadily after 70, and steeply after 85. 

Members of the public can report medically unfit drivers to the DVLA but medical professionals are not required to report. In 2016 three-year-old Poppy-Arabella Clarke was killed on a pedestrian crossing by a 72-year-old driver who had been told twice by opticians his eyesight was so bad he shouldn’t be driving, even with glasses.

Her parents have campaigned for a change in the law requiring medical professionals to report unfit drivers. However there are fears patients may withhold information on health problems if they risk losing their license.

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