Tuesday 17 November 2015

Motorists banned in error after DVLA eyesight test fails

The DVLA has banned more than 600 motorists from driving following eyesight tests used by government-appointed opticians it now admits have been giving false results.
But the government agency is refusing to compensate drivers, many of whom were forced to sell their cars and pay for taxis and other forms of transport, as it blames the makers of the eye-testing equipment for the problem.
Over the past few months the DVLA has contacted 604 motorists after it emerged that a field vision analyser, used by DVLA-accredited optometrists since 2010 to assess competency to drive, is unreliable. Around 80% of those who agreed to be reassessed have since had their licences restored.
Derek Harlow, 78, is among the many drivers who were wrongly banned. He lost his licence in April 2013 after an eyesight test – and also lost a lifeline. The glaucoma sufferer from Witney in Oxfordshire cares for his disabled wife, and as he was the sole driver, the couple were forced to sell their car. “My wife struggles to use public transport and has become progressively housebound for much of the time since then,” he says.
But in August Harlow was staggered to receive a letter from the DVLA admitting that his eyesight test had been unreliable. When he went for reassessment he was told he was perfectly able to drive and his licence was restored.
“When the initial elation subsided, I felt aggrieved that my life has been disrupted so needlessly,” he says. “I have complained to the DVLA but have received a ‘not-our-fault’ letter obviously encouraging me to take no further action. Surely the DVLA cannot absolve itself of the responsibility having contracted specific opticians to carry out the eye tests on its behalf? I had no choice as to which optician to use.”

Harlow sold his Vauxhall Corsa for £1,800 when he lost his licence, and has since had to spend £5,200 replacing it with a five-year-old Toyota Yaris, as well as funding taxis, trains and buses for two-and-a-half years. “We’ve lost a lot of money through no fault of our own,” he says. “We also lost much of our independence. My wife and I have had more than 50 years of freedom of travel, including many trips abroad by car and campervan. That all came to a sudden stop in April 2013.”
Under DVLA rules, drivers with certain medical conditions are required to reapply for their licence every one to three years, and if their treatment or condition has changed, to undergo paid-for optical tests at optometrists appointed by the DVLA. These involve tracking random flashing lights on a screen while focusing on a target straight ahead.
But the software fault in the equipment caused the lights to shine less brightly than they should. The DVLA said: “There may be some individuals who would have been able to detect the lights at the higher brightness standard that should have been used, but were unable to detect the lights at this lower brightness. As soon as we became aware of the fault we asked opticians to immediately stop using the equipment and contacted everyone who had undergone the test on that equipment.”
The agency says that of the 604 people affected, less than half of those who replied have sought to reapply for their licences; 71 are still awaiting a reassessment; and the DVLA is trying to get in touch with the 232 who have not yet responded.
The DVLA says it acted as soon as the problem came to light and can’t be blamed for the fiasco. “As this software issue originated at the point of manufacture and not as a result of any action or inaction by the DVLA, we are not responsible for any losses that might have resulted from the defect,” a spokesperson told the Guardian. “The fault with this particular piece of equipment seems to have originated from an inherent software defect and, although the model has been in circulation for a few years, the defect has only recently been identified.”
But the government agency faces a potential multimillion-pound bill if it becomes a target for the new-style class legal actions permitted under the recently enacted Consumer Rights Act.
Nitin Khandhia, civil litigation and dispute resolution lawyer at solicitors BTMK, says: “The consequences of this situation could be very far reaching. Due to the number of people affected by this there may be potential for any claim for compensation or damages to be bought as a group action.”
The DVLA not only rejects liability, but has also made it very difficult to make a claim against the equipment manufacturer by refusing to disclose the name of the company. Harlow is also unable to seek redress from the optician who carried out the test as the practice has since shut down.

Because the DVLA pays for the eyesight tests, patients do not get to see their results. Instead, these are passed straight to the DVLA which makes the decision on whether the individual is allowed to retain their licence. If they are forced off the road they can appeal and send in medical evidence to back up their claim or apply to be re-examined, but DVLA bureaucracy can be time-consuming and the few who succeed often endure months in which they are unable to drive.
Jenny Hirst, a former optometrist and co-chair of the Independent Diabetes Trust, fears that hundreds more drivers may have lost their licences because of what she calls the “blunt instrument” used to assess them.
“One of our members passed the test eight years after having his licence revoked on the grounds of inadequate field vision,” she says. “The instruments used were never designed to test ability to drive and the results take no account of individuality. It’s not illegal, for instance, for a one-eyed person to drive because the good eye adapts to compensate – but if a one-eyed person developed diabetes and had to take this field vision test they would most likely fail.”
Last year the DVLA signed an exclusive £8m contract with high street chain Specsavers to provide its required visual field and acuity tests for four years – a move that caused huge controversy among independent opticians. “At Specsavers you have the test once and the DVLA makes its decision on that score, whereas independent opticians would allow you several retests to check the result is accurate,” Hirst says.
Although Specsavers has hundreds of branches, in some parts of the country drivers complain that while in the past they could use their local accredited optometrist, they now face lengthy journeys to the nearest Specsavers branch. Residents in Campbeltown in Argyll discovered they were expected to make an eight-hour round trip to Ayr if they wanted to keep their licences.
The DVLA says it was obliged to seek the best deal for taxpayers since it foots the bill for obligatory sight tests. “Previously we dealt with many individual opticians on an ad-hoc basis,” says a spokesperson. “Although the individual cost per optician was relatively low, the aggregated spend on the service meant that the contract had to be tendered in accordance with the Public Contracts Regulations 2006. Specsavers provided the most economically advantageous tender.”
Specsavers says that it is thanks to its exclusive contract with the DVLA that the problem with the visual field analysers came to light. “It is because we started doing all the official tests that we had access to enough data to realise there were anomalies,” a spokesperson says. “Since being awarded the contract, we have tested nearly 60,000 people on behalf of the DVLA, of which less than 300 were affected by this software issue.
“The software issue has been rectified and Specsavers has taken the decision to replace the machine entirely. Our stores are doing their very best to work with the DVLA to ensure these patients are prioritised and that their new test results are sent to the DVLA for processing as quickly as possible.”

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