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Mobility Scooters

Volume 503: debated on Tuesday 5 January 2010

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important matter of mobility scooters and pedestrian safety. Let me say from the outset that mobility scooters are great and that they enhance the quality of life of many of my elderly and disabled constituents. Indeed, my mother and mother-in-law, who are both in their 80s, have mobility scooters and benefit greatly from them.

As you know, Mr. Atkinson, my constituency has the highest number of claims in the country from former miners for chronic bronchitis and emphysema. That means that it contains more people who are disabled than the national average, particularly in the former pit villages. However, my main reason for calling this debate was not that, but an e-mail I received from Kerry McNair, who is from Shafton in my constituency:

“Hello. I was advised to contact you regarding my daughter. She is 23 months old and was recently run down in Doncaster by a mobility scooter. We were in the pedestrian zone when I was struck from behind, then watched in horror as my little girl was knocked to the ground and driven over. The old lady did not stop, she kept going, dragging my baby under her machine. I screamed at her to stop. Eventually some men lifted her off, she refused to dismount, and I grabbed my little girl. The old lady then tried to drive off but someone grabbed her keys. An ambulance was called and took us to hospital. The old lady was spoken to by police but allowed on her way. She did not apologise and has made no effort to be in touch. No charges can be brought against her as there are no laws covering mobility scooters. This is wrong. My daughter has had a patch of her Scalp ripped off, she is covered in cuts and bruises. At night she takes ages to go to sleep as is afraid to close her eyes. I struggle changing her nappy as she now hates being laid down. And she is terribly clingy. I have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress. Why can this lady be allowed to ruin our lives. I close my eyes and picture it all the time. Please help me to fight this. I want to take a stand. I will not allow my daughter to be treated like this by anyone. Justice needs to be done. Can you help. I would be grateful for your advice. Kind regards, Kerry McNair”.

That sums up in a nutshell the trauma that people experience when small children are knocked down by mobility scooters.

Mrs. McNair is right that there are no suitable laws covering mobility scooters. The death of a 90-year-old lady called Lillian Macey last September led to no action by the police. Since raising this issue, I have received many e-mails in support of Mrs. McNair’s point from across the nation. I recently received a short e-mail from a constituent of my neighbouring MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Jane Kaye from Barugh Green wrote:

“I have been reading in the Barnsley Chronicle about your concerns regarding mobility scooters. I’m pleased you are looking into this as we (myself and my husband) have witnessed some near misses and scooters being driven at a worrying speed round streets in town where young children are walking.”

For the rest of my speech I will investigate possible solutions, which the Minister can consider, to make mobility scooters as safe as possible for their users and other members of the public. I would like him to consider an e-mail from Mr. Michael Rushton from Wombwell in my constituency:

“Dear Jeff Ennis,

I’m glad to hear at last on the local radio station someone’s taking up the problem of Motability Scooters. My son was nearly crushed against a wall a couple of years ago. Let me tell you the motability scooters weigh quite a bit. There are 2 or 3 questions that come to mind.

1. Why are motability scooter owners not made to take a test, such as a proficiency test that the suppliers could enforce?

2. Why are scooter owners seemingly exempt from prosecution for dangerous driving? For example, driving straight down the white line or going straight across at junctions while traffic is turning in to it, which I have witnessed dozens of times at Main Street in Wombwell.

3. Why are the owners also not penalised for carrying passengers?

4. Why are motability owners not breathalysed when they have been drinking in pubs and clubs? Surely this is drink driving. If riding a bicycle, they would be stopped for drink driving.

I understand the need for the scooters as I have a child with cerebral palsy and can appreciate the need for mobility, but safety for pedestrians and also the mobility scooter user must be paramount. The story on the radio must be repeated up and down the country.”

As the Minister knows, there is no requirement for people to undergo training before taking a mobility scooter on to the streets. Many reputable retailers provide rudimentary instruction, but whether they do so is at their discretion. More people are now buying mobility scooters over the internet and second-hand ones through local newspapers, so the first time many mobility scooter users sit on their scooter is the day on which they take it out on to the streets.

The crux of the problem is how we can ensure that mobility scooter users are proficient at riding their machines and are safe for themselves and other road users. I do not believe that the answer is a compulsory test for mobility scooter users like a driving test. That would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. However, serious consideration should be given to allowing users the opportunity to take a proficiency test on a voluntary basis, along the lines of the scheme recently trialled by Norfolk police in Great Yarmouth. The impetus for that scheme was generated by the high volume of complaints about accidents caused by mobility scooter users on Great Yarmouth’s streets and pavements.

The scheme is run by Penny Carpenter, a crime prevention officer with Norfolk police. In a recent article, she was quoted as saying:

“Anyone can get a mobility scooter and you don’t have to have a licence…There’s no test involved. There’s no legal requirement to have insurance and anybody can drive one with no training at all.”

However, it is recommended that users should have at least third-party cover. The article continued:

“The courses, there have been two of them so far, aim to fill that gap. Improving users’ handling skills and creating an awareness of road safety are all key, as is installing a sense of pavement etiquette.

It takes about 25 minutes to complete, but there is no pass or fail. So far more than 50 people have volunteered to do it. And it is not just for beginners. The majority are people who have been using their scooters for years.

Shiela Adair, 64, is one of them. ‘Even though I’ve used a scooter before the course was ideal to learn about reversing.’”

Norfolk police started the scheme because it believed that the number of accidents involving mobility scooters was on the increase. That cannot be proved nationally because mobility scooters come under the Department’s “other motorised vehicles” category, which includes ambulances, fire engines, motor caravans, motorised wheelchairs and quad bikes. Over the last three years, the number of accidents involving all vehicles in that category has increased substantially. For example, there were 1,970 accidents in 2006, 2,971 accidents in 2007 and 3,238 in 2008, which is the last year for which statistics are available. Those figures show a 60-odd per cent. increase over three years in that category. However, we cannot say how many of those accidents are directly attributable to mobility scooters. The Minister should therefore consider creating a separate category for mobility scooters, so that we can build up an evidence base on this important issue and find out one way or the other whether accidents involving mobility scooters are on the increase.

My final point regards a matter I have recently written about to the Chairman of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). I asked her whether her Select Committee would consider the issue and I am pleased to say—this is for the Minister’s information—that in the coming months she has indeed agreed to carry out a short inquiry into the issue of mobility scooters. I obviously hope that the Minister will give evidence to that inquiry.

In conclusion I shall cover three key points, which I would like the Minister specifically to address in his closing remarks. First, will he consider the merits of introducing a voluntary proficiency test, preferably at no charge to the user? Such a test could be administered in conjunction with reputable retailers and local police authorities working together, as is done in Norfolk and one or two other police authority areas. I certainly intend to write to the chief constable of South Yorkshire to draw the matter to his attention, and to see whether we can establish a course similar to the Norfolk one in South Yorkshire. I hope that the Minister will talk to his counterpart in the Home Office, the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism, on the matter to establish whether progress on such a course can be made.

The second issue I would like the Minister to address is whether he will consider introducing the new offence of riding a mobility scooter in a dangerous way. That was very much the point that Mrs. McNair made in her revealing e-mail, which I read out at the beginning of my contribution. Finally, will the Minister consider introducing the specific category of “mobility scooter” in relation to the departmental statistics issue that I have already outlined, so that we can definitely say whether this is an increasing problem?

Order. Before I call the hon. Gentleman, I know that the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) is happy for him to contribute, but may I confirm whether the Minister is happy?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing this important debate. I am grateful to him and the Minister for allowing me a few moments to speak about my constituent, Mrs. Margaret Macalagan, who was hit by a mobility scooter when out shopping in 2008. She suffered serious injuries that meant she was admitted to hospital and her own mobility was badly affected. The driver of the scooter that hit her was untrained and uninsured, and was also elderly, disabled and of limited means. Mrs. Macalagan was therefore unable to gain any compensation for the injuries she sustained.

York Older People’s Assembly asked me to take up the issue and I raised it in 2008 with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Transport. I do not want to stop people using mobility scooters—they are a benefit—but I want to create an environment in which they are used safely and to ensure as far as possible that other people are not injured.

I would particularly like the Government to consider making insurance for such scooters compulsory. The DWP funds a number of people to run scooters through the disability living allowance scheme. One scheme under which people obtain scooters that are paid for with their DLA is the Motability powered wheelchair and scooter scheme. Those who get scooters under that scheme are required to insure the scooters, both for injury to third parties and for fire and theft. So when the Government fund scooters, they believe that insurance is not only reasonable but necessary. The same prescription should be applied to others who use scooters.

Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned that statistics on the number of accidents involving those scooters have not been collected. The Department for Transport should change that. In October 2009, I wrote again to the Department for Transport about the problem. The Minister who is present today replied very promptly in November, and told me:

“We are considering consulting on issues such as compulsory insurance and training”.

I am glad that is being considered, but I simply urge the Minister to start consulting on making those changes. Such changes are overdue and the sooner they are made, the better.

It is a pleasure to respond to a debate with you in the Chair, Mr. Atkinson—I think it is the first time I have done so. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) for raising some important issues about the use of mobility vehicles, for the way he has done so and for proffering some solutions to the problems he has highlighted—that makes one’s life a lot easier, when one is in the hot seat.

May I put on the record my sadness and concern to hear about the serious injury suffered by his constituent, Madison McNair, who is two years old, and the impact the injury she suffered has had on her family? I was also sad to hear about the other examples he gave, including the recent fatality.

By way of background, Britain has one of the best road safety records among developed countries. Since 2000, we have reduced the number of deaths and serious injuries by 40 per cent. and we remain committed to do more to make our roads and pavements safer still. All the evidence suggests that the use of mobility vehicles is growing and that trend is likely to continue as our population ages. Indeed, the number of people aged over 80 is likely to increase by 85 per cent. over the next 20 years.

One of the reasons I welcome the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and for Barnsley, East and Mexborough is because of the balance of their remarks. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough referred to the benefits of mobility scooters both to his direct family and constituents. Unfortunately, some people have physical or social needs that require something more innovative to enable them to get around. In providing for that innovation, it is important for us to balance the rights of people with disabilities with the rights of other people to feel safe. I thank my hon. Friend for his letter to the Chair of the Transport Committee, which I believe will mean that I give evidence. The Committee is considering an important subject and I genuinely thank him for his interest. I also encourage him to give evidence to that inquiry—I am sure he will enjoy doing so and revel in it as much as I will.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that similar considerations for innovative transport modes and the opportunities that new technologies offer have meant that, earlier today, we launched parallel consultations on whether we should allow electric personal vehicles such as the Segway on our roads and cycle tracks, and on the requirements for electrically assisted pedal cycles. That is why, considering the increasing numbers of these vehicles, I am considering whether to consult on changing legislation concerning mobility scooters.

I shall return to some of the points raised by my hon. Friends. I am keen to work with my hon. Friend on the recent rates of incidents involving scooters and I would be grateful if he provided the sources for any data he has reported today, so that we can build up an evidence base. I should start by saying that, as he said, information on incidents involving and injuries caused by mobility scooters is not recorded centrally. However, some research databases have given us an indication of the risk that they pose. Primarily, mobility scooters are used among pedestrians, who I am afraid do occasionally trip over them or are perhaps hit by them. However, because pavement speeds are limited to 4 mph, injuries are rare and mostly minor. That assertion is supported by several studies.

Estimates from a set of data collected from 18 representative A and E departments from a survey undertaken between 2000 and 2002 suggested that nationally there might be around 750 incidents a year involving three or four-wheeled mobility vehicles that warrant a hospital visit, although regrettably no indication of the severity of such incidents is available. I accept that since 2002 the number of people using mobility scooters has increased.

Fortunately, data are recorded from certain hospitals about people who have an NHS hospital stay of three days or more due to trauma. That suggests that each year across the country fewer than 40 people are injured by mobility scooters severely enough to require a lengthy stay in hospital. It is worth noting that around 95 per cent. of the injuries were to mobility scooter drivers, rather than to people being hit by them. That is an important point, and I will come back to the point about proficiency training, to which my hon. Friend referred, because it is linked to that point as well.

For fatal injuries, we have scanned press reports, which show that it is likely that a mobility scooter incident was the cause of at least one pedestrian death in 2009, and at least one in 2008. Of course, we would wish to avoid any incidents if possible, but the figure of one death a year should be compared with the seven deaths a day on the roads overall. I am not minimising the deaths caused by mobility scooters, but merely stating that the risk they pose to pedestrians is small when compared to the deaths caused by road vehicles overall.

To summarise that point, it would be fair to say that the evidence suggests that mobility scooters are reasonably safe, certainly when compared to other modes of transport. However, it is worth recognising that their primary design consideration appears in most cases to be to improve mobility, rather than to ensure the safety of the pedestrians with which they are most mixed.

My hon. Friend will be aware, perhaps from Christmas presents he has bought for younger people, that it is possible to buy a remote control car that, when it comes into contact with an object, such as a table, TV or CD rack, will do a U-turn to avoid hitting that object. As a lay person, I do not have technical expertise on that, but I do not see why mobility scooters could not do something similar. I would like to look at that in the design standards and in any consultations we have as well.

Another big issue that was raised is whether users of mobility scooters can be prosecuted for dangerous use. I should start by saying that that is a separate issue from how they should be prosecuted. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 specifically exempts “invalid carriages”—I am afraid that that is the language they used in those days—from road traffic legislation, defining them as “mechanically propelled vehicles”, rather than “motor vehicles”.

There is an offence in law under paragraph 35 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which gives the police powers to deal with those who use mobility vehicles in a dangerous manner, and in proven cases a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment may be carried. Section 28 of the Road Safety Act 2006 now permits the application of discretionary points or disqualification for drivers with a driving licence. Of course, a person who has been injured by a scooter may also file a civil claim for damages or personal injury. For that reason, we strongly recommend that scooter users take out insurance, and available figures suggest that around 90 per cent. of them may already do so. I do, however, take on board the points raised by my hon. Friend.

I thank the Minister for his reasoned response, which I am really happy with so far. On his point about the number of accidents and the actions that can be taken against individuals who are guilty of dangerous driving, I accept that that can be covered by the 2006 Act. However, Mr. Rushton from Wombwell, whose e-mail I read out, mentioned people using mobility scooters when drunk. One cannot be breathalysed when riding a mobility scooter, but one can still be prosecuted under the Licensing Act 1872 for riding a horse and cart when drunk. Surely we should introduce legislation. We should not be relying on laws from 1861 and 1872 for issues such as this. We should be bringing the legislation up to date.

My hon. Friend is in danger of making better than I have the points about why consultation is needed on some of the challenges that we face as the number of users increases and the potential risks that they pose to pedestrians increase as well. I was struck not just by his point but by what my hon. Friend the Member for City of York said about the apparent anomalies in requirements and prescription when it comes to insurance for some mobility scooter users and others as well. Clearly, those are issues that any consultation would need to take on board.

There is a caveat in respect of the lack of evidence for reasons that have been discussed over the past 25 minutes, but, on the available evidence, it appears that mobility vehicles are not having a significant impact on road safety, and that existing law does permit prosecution, with the caveats that we discussed in the last interaction.

A point was raised about users not being required to undergo compulsory training. The advice and training that are available from retailers, local authorities and charities are not compulsory, but the Department and I strongly recommend that scooter users avail themselves of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough gave examples of proficiency courses available to mobility scooters, and I commend organisations such as Norfolk police, which has been in the media today, that have put in place voluntary training schemes.

The key questions for any compulsory training would be who would be responsible for the training standards, which body would apply them and how the trainers themselves would be trained and assessed. I am interested in rolling out the idea of voluntary proficiency tests, which is perhaps an issue for consultation.

Another point that has been canvassed is remedial training for users who have been involved in an accident. There are practical problems with doing that, as there is no specific offence in law of riding a mobility scooter in a dangerous manner. It is difficult to see how we would do remedial training schemes, but training is an issue on which any consultation would seek views. I am also not opposed to the idea that was profferred about the Department creating a separate statistical category to collect evidence.

The legislation is now more than 20 years old. My hon. Friend has reminded me that we rely on an Act from 1861 for this area. In the last period, the use of such vehicles has increased. In 2005-06, for example, there were an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 powered mobility vehicles. A more recent estimate from the national travel survey suggests that there could now be up to 330,000, and the figure is likely to grow for the reasons that I have set out. The increasing number of such vehicles and the increasing interest in safety concerns make this an opportune time to look again at the legislation covering mobility vehicles. In doing so, our aim would remain to balancing the mobility needs of scooter users with the safety needs of pedestrians and other road users.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, East and Mexborough and for City of York for articulating in a proportionate and balanced manner some of the challenges that we face. I hope to work with them to try to find some of the solutions, and to return to this matter with some better news in the not too distant future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.