The system may not be fit for purpose, ministers say
The UK system for assessing whether older drivers can drive safely may no longer be relevant, transport ministers have warned.
The UK’s growing population of aging drivers and the system used to assess whether they are medically fit to remain behind the wheel of a car is testing the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s (DVLA) ability to ensure they can do so safely .
Concerns about fitness to drive surfaced when deputies questioned Department of Transportation officials and Julie Lennard, chief executive of the DVLA, about delays in issuing driver’s licenses.
The state’s licensing agency has been criticized for having a massive backlog of outstanding driver’s license applications, 77,000 of which have been delayed by more than three months.
Two-thirds of the pending applications are from people with conditions such as epilepsy, diabetes and heart problems, whose applications are taking longer to consider, MPs have been told.
Despite the creation of a new dedicated unit in Birmingham to deal with the problem, Ms Lennard said many of the delays were due to problems getting medical experts to assess individual cases.
The DVLA employed 43 doctors and eight nurses to review applications, but also had to write to individual GPs and consultants to seek expert advice on more than 300 different medical conditions that could make it dangerous for a driver to obtain a driver’s license.
At the height of the pandemic, the attention of medical professionals elsewhere was on treating virus victims, and delays have been encountered.
GPs’ fees are not part of their NHS contract but represent private work for which they are paid directly by the DVLA, Ms Lennard said. Case information often had to be sent via secure mail for clinical assessments as it was not possible to transmit the information digitally. This created delays over which they had little or no control, she said.
There is no upper age limit for driving in the UK, but all drivers must renew their driving license when they reach the age of 70 and every three years thereafter. Individuals renewing are asked if they have any health issues and need to meet vision requirements.
Emma Ward, Roads Director for the Department of Transport, conceded to MPs on the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that the laws governing motorists’ medical fitness needed to be reviewed. “We are very aware that the legislation underlying driver medicine has not been studied for a very long time.
“We have an aging population, we have more people who want to drive longer, in fact we have more people who have held a driver’s license for a much longer period of time,” she said. “We have a significant number of people in their 70s who have a license and want to drive.”
Ms Ward said she had already put the issue on the radar of incoming Secretary of State for Transport Mark Harper.
MPs and the DVLA have received thousands of letters of complaint over delays, said PAC leader Dame Meg Hillier, many of whom outlined the tragic consequences of the delays, including an elderly man who was forced to spend an extra £3,000 on public transport in order to be to be able to visit his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, in a nursing home.
Another story she cited is of a bus driver in south-east London who said he was on the verge of losing his livelihood as a bus driver because he was unable to renew his license in time.
Julie Lennard said DVLA staff are looking at those letters and thousands more, trying to prioritize them as best they can.
Dame Bernadette Kelly, senior official at the Department for Transport, said everyone involved was “well aware that it was more than just a numbers game and that there were real people with real consequences”.
The DVLA had a contingency plan prior to the pandemic that worked well for more than 80 percent of its work processing licenses but was also not ready for employees to work from home, Ms Lennard said.
The size and sensitivity of the DVLA database presented enormous challenges, and only a small number of employees had started working on laptops. She said 60 per cent of DVLA staff continued to work from their Swansea office after virus protection measures were put in place.
The DVLA secured a second property nearby to increase the number of applications processed safely. Ms Lennard said she regretted getting the second office in Swansea as it caused major delays as Swansea and Wales registered greater numbers of Covid infections in a second wave. “I wish, coming to think of it, we would have gotten the Birmingham office first as it would have given us more resilience.”
The committee heard that a labor dispute was adding to their problems. She told MPs that relations with local representatives of the Public and Commercial Services Union were good and productive until full-time national officials became involved in 2021 following reports of high numbers of Covid infections at the DVLA’s Swansea offices.