People often do not notice small progressive changes to their vision. So, where does the responsibility lie for checking that employees can see properly when driving for work?
An employee who drives a group 2 vehicle, a heavy-goods vehicle or a bus, for example, will have to undergo stringent medical tests and eyesight checks. There are, however, an increasing number of employees who drive in the course of their work but do not come under such regulations. Responsibility for ensuring the fitness to drive of employees who are attending meetings, visiting sites or making deliveries in their own or a company car is a grey area.
These employees may be driving tens of thousands of business miles a year in a sales role, or simply attending the occasional meeting or dropping off parcels at the local post office. While the risk increases with the number of miles driven, the responsibility remains the same.
In theory, the Highway Code and the law place the responsibility to ensure fitness to drive with the individual driver. There is, however, more to it than that and, when an employee is driving for work purposes, some of the onus is on the employer.
Under the Corporate Manslaughter Act, courts will look at the "management systems and practices" across an organisation. The Act has only recently come into force and, under many circumstances, is yet to be tested. It is not, however, too great a leap to imagine a situation where allowing an employee to drive without first ensuring they are fit to do so would be seen as a breach of an employer's duty of care.
One factor is that the DVLA believes that a great deal of the responsibility is already shouldered by the employer. In a recent consultation regarding fitness to drive and driver eyesight, the DVLA states: "Many employers have their own procedures in place to ensure medical fitness to drive." However, research by Specsavers Corporate Eyecare shows that more than half (53%) of employers do not offer eyecare to any of their employees who drive in the course of their work and 14% of employers offer eyecare only to some drivers.
It is perhaps wise to turn to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for guidance. The HSE document "Driving at work: managing work-related road safety" states: "Some employers believe, incorrectly, that provided they comply with certain road traffic law requirements, eg company vehicles have a valid MOT certificate, and that drivers hold a valid licence, this is enough to ensure the safety of their employees, and others, when they are on the road. However, health and safety law applies to on-the-road work activities as to all work activities, and the risks should be effectively managed within a health and safety management system."
To compound the issue, it is the people who are using our roads for work purposes who are at increased risk of causing or being involved in a traffic incident. Research across several organisations all points in the same direction.
The Occupational Road Safety Alliance estimates that up to one-third of road collisions, equalling around 1,000 deaths and 10,000 serious injuries a year, involve people driving in the course of their work.
More than half (53%) of employers do not offer eyecare to any of their employees who drive in the course of their work."
The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) states that company car drivers have 50% more accidents than those driving for domestic purposes.
The TRL also states that car drivers with high proportions of work-related mileage have up to 53% more accidents that result in injury than similar drivers with no work-related mileage.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents calculates that, after deep-sea fishing and coal mining, driving 25,000 miles or more a year on business is the third most dangerous activity in the UK.
The Department for Transport states that drivers involved in work-related road accidents appeared to have a high "blameworthiness".
Counting the cost
The human cost of a collision on the roads can be immeasurable and the main focus for any employer must, and will always be, ensuring the safety of employees.
The financial cost to the company cannot, however, be overlooked. While anyone covered by fully comprehensive insurance will recoup the cost of repairs to their vehicle, there are often associated uninsured losses. These may include lost time, sick pay, damage or loss of product, investigation time, fines, temporary labour, loss of contracts, legal cost, etc.
Specsavers Corporate Eyecare carried out research earlier this year to ascertain the extent of the issue of poor eyesight among employees who drive in the course of their work. The results revealed the degree of concern over driver safety and knowledge gaps regarding basic driving laws.
Fleet managers from 164 companies, representing up to 414,000 public- and private-sector employees, responded to the survey. More than half (54%) said they worry that some of their employees may be driving when their eyesight is not good enough to do so.
The fleet managers were also revealed to lack knowledge of the driving Regulations. Less than two-thirds (65%) of fleet managers were able to identify correctly the legal eyesight requirement for driving in the UK. Nearly a quarter (24%) believed the law demands a full eye test, a test of peripheral vision and the ability to read a number plate at a set distance. In fact, the only legal necessity is the "number-plate test", which is the ability to read a number plate at a distance of 20.5 metres for vehicles with the old-style plate and 20 metres for the new-style plates. Despite this lack of understanding, 70% of fleet managers still believed that they knew the legal requirements.
The vast majority (91%) of fleet managers think it is very important that employees who drive in the course of their work have their eyes tested. However, only 38% actually have a policy in place to test the eyesight of occupational drivers. The number of companies and organisations without a policy in place to ensure the eyesight and, therefore, the safety of drivers, may well be down to lack of impetus. Of those who do not have an eyecare policy, 70% do not know the reason why. For the remaining 30%, it is due to a mix of time constraints, cost constraints and not knowing how to implement such a policy.
The eyesight standards that have to be met in order to be deemed safe to drive are woefully low. The number-plate test was devised in the 1930s, when road conditions and vehicle numbers were very different from today. It is a rudimentary check, conducted on the day of the driving test, which is purely to test that sight over a distance is "adequate". So much more is surely necessary under today's driving conditions, such as good peripheral vision and the ability to refocus between instruments in the car and objects on the road?
A full eye examination will quickly and simply determine if an individual's eyesight is good enough for driving."
Once the number-plate test has been passed, no legal retesting intervals are stipulated and research shows that the vast majority of drivers do not have their eyesight checked as often as recommended by optometrists. Although drivers are, by law, required to notify the DVLA if their fitness to drive has altered in any way, a gradual deterioration of eyesight often goes unnoticed. Most people's eyesight changes considerably throughout their lifetime but the subtle alterations may only be picked up by regular examinations. So, in reality, many drivers will not have adequate eyesight for driving as the current system requires them to be both aware of a problem and inclined to tell the authorities.
Worryingly, the Government is considering lowering the standards for drivers' eyesight by reducing the distance for the number-plate test to just 17.5 metres. This is to bring the UK in line with the rest of the EU. The majority (58%) of fleet managers surveyed opposed the Government's plans and said that they believed that this would make our roads less safe.
Far from reducing the standards for drivers' eyesight, Specsavers Corporate Eyecare is keen for the Government to implement fuller testing procedures. It makes sense that all drivers, particularly employees who drive in the course of their work and are at increased risk, should undergo a full eye examination, including tests of acuity and visual fields, to determine that they are safe to drive.
A full eye examination will quickly and simply determine if an individual's eyesight is good enough for driving. It will provide a check of eyesight over distance and the equally crucial tests of peripheral vision, ability to focus, balance and coordination of the eyes, blind spots, and more. Some opticians now also offer digital retinal photography which can aid in the detection of various serious health conditions and illnesses including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, risk of stroke and symptoms associated with brain tumours.
Voucher systems are available that provide a simple low-cost option for corporate eyecare. The employer can purchase vouchers directly and then hand them out as and when required. Employees can redeem the vouchers at high-street opticians' stores, which entitle them to a full eye examination and can include glasses if required.
With corporate drivers at such an increased level of risk, the costs of collisions being so high both emotionally and financially, and the risk to employers of corporate manslaughter charges, an all-inclusive eyecare policy is surely essential.
Additionally, employers may receive financial rewards from insurers in terms of their premiums if they implement a comprehensive eyecare policy for their drivers. The business will also benefit from employee appreciation and the associated morale boost.
Driver eyesight must, therefore, be considered a crucial aspect of fleet safety policy, good business sense and employer responsibility.
Jim Lythgow is the director of strategic alliances at Specsavers Corporate Eyecare. The company offers a range of vouchers covering driver, visual display units, safety and optical eyecare.