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Mobility Scooter Safety

Volume 542: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2012

It is good to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. Given that this is, I trust, a non-contentious issue, I hope that you will not be called to action.

Like many hon. Members, I have heard complaints and concerns about the design and safety of mobility scooters on the road, and the risks posed to those who use them and to other road users. Only yesterday, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) proposed a ten-minute rule Bill to update and clarify the Road Traffic Act 1988 on the use of powered wheelchairs, and his speech in the main Chamber also touched on mobility scooters.

I secured this debate after being contacted by one of my constituents about the design failing of his scooter, and following a meeting that I held with a Plymouth-based organisation called Scoot-A-Long. Both meetings forcefully flagged up significant failings in the system that cut across a number of Departments. I therefore tabled questions and wrote letters to the Departments of Health and for Transport, but the responses have not satisfied me or my constituents.

I would like to mention Mr Brian Fleming and describe his experiences, which have angered and frustrated him. He has been frustrated because, despite every attempt to highlight the problems, no one appears to be listening and he worries, as do I, that at some point a fatality will occur. He has been dedicated to raising awareness about the safety of these vehicles, and he has tried to interest programmes such as “Panorama” in his story.

Let us start at the beginning. What do we know about accidents involving mobility scooters? The answer is virtually nothing, and the full recording of incidents on the road that involve mobility scooters is unlikely to start before 2013. We are also not sure how and where off-road incidents take place, and whether they are ever likely to be recorded.

Recently, there was the tragic death at Bodmin in Cornwall of an elderly gentleman, Mr Moore, whose scooter flipped over on a steep slope. Because of the interest generated by this debate, Thompsons solicitors contacted me to provide a couple more examples of incidents that were linked to mobility scooters or motorised wheelchairs, which are known legally as invalidity carriages—that definition probably ought to be updated. A 79-year-old woman was left with serious injuries after a van collided with her mobility scooter in Sunderland. One claimant was shopping in Newcastle, but as she queued up a mobility scooter suddenly came towards her, knocking her to the floor. She suffered serious damage—a broken hip—and still has difficulty walking. Those are just a few examples, but we need to reduce the risk of such accidents and tragedies happening by increasing our knowledge of where and how they occur.

What do we know about the safety standards applied to imported mobility scooters? Again, not a lot. The Department for Transport has not commissioned safety checks on any vehicle model, and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency—the MHRA—which, according to the Department, is responsible for regulation in that area, does not commission safety checks on mobility scooters before their placement in the market. One has to ask, why not?

I find that astonishing. Would we allow a medicine to enter the market without it reaching a certain standard? No, we would not. Would we allow a car to go on the road without it reaching a certain standard? No. Why, then, is a mobility scooter allowed to go anywhere without a check, particularly when, on occasion, they are used by people who have never driven a car, perhaps have no road awareness and who may be frail? We expect people who drive cars on the road to take a driving test, yet a significant number of people are using a scooter on the roads with little or no road knowledge, other than as a pedestrian. I will return to that point.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. There is an active group in my constituency that makes mobility scooters available, and it has noted the issues that she seeks to address. A lot of police forces have also tried to emphasise the need for safety, and for people to have experience and to take advice when using mobility scooters. Does she feel that the time for the police to give advice, as with The Highway Code, is long overdue and that introducing registration will secure safety for everyone?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. A lot of good work is being done by various police authorities and other organisations to try to raise safety awareness. I will return to that point.

There is growing pressure to have a Minister with responsibility for older people, and such a person might be responsible for drawing these issues together—putting them in one place—and considering whether we need to regulate further, or indeed to legislate. The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety called for such a post to be created, and there is no doubt that the safety of mobility vehicles was one reason behind that request.

Let me return to Mr Fleming. He is getting on in years—I will not say how old he is—but he has had a distinguished career. He has a degree of engineering knowledge, and he therefore speaks with some authority on the workings of his scooter. He contacted me because he has a Pride Colt 8, which, I understand, the MHRA has received complaints about. Indeed, one Pride Colt 8 was involved in an accident in Staffordshire, and the investigating police officer got in touch with me. He wanted to know what I knew about that vehicle, given the parliamentary questions that I had tabled. That cannot be right: police officers should not need to ring a Member of Parliament who happens to have tabled some questions to seek out information on the background and mechanical failings of a particular vehicle. Such information should be available elsewhere.

The Pride Colt 8 owned by Mr Fleming had a series of failings. Its electric autobrake failed, the head console was affected by corrosion and there was a catastrophic failure of the drive, leading to the product being recalled—need I go on? There is a long list of complaints, and a frankly unsatisfactory response from the manufacturer. The scooter does not appear to be fit for purpose and it can stop without warning. It passes basic requirements for use on the pavement, although not the road, yet it is being used by some on the roads.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate about something that affects a growing number of people in our society, either as scooter users or as their fellow pedestrians and road users. Does she agree that we need to set the discussion in the wider context of ensuring that the design of pavements and lowered pavements takes account of the needs of scooter users, so that they are not left in dangerous situations or forced to cross the road? I have been to look at certain locations in my constituency with users of mobility scooters.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I will touch on the problems faced by local authorities. His comments reinforce concerns that I have heard from local authorities, as well as from users of mobility scooters.

One point that I have been made aware of concerns the advertising of mobility scooters. The adverts show an almost deluxe mobility scooter that can go anywhere. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has seen the adverts, but the scooters seem to be able to go through muck and snow, and go anywhere, almost like a four-wheel-drive mobility scooter. Does she agree that adverts ought to show what is achievable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that between him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), my speech has been covered. The hon. Gentleman’s point is correct: the adverts suggest that some of these vehicles are all-singing and all-dancing. Indeed, there are individuals who soup up their scooters, for whatever reason, but that is clearly a separate issue.

Many imported vehicles are not legal on our highways, yet that is where they are innocently being used by the purchasers. In addition, there is no requirement for insurance. I would welcome the Minister’s view on why that is. Is it because of the cost factor? How many vehicles have been prevented from reaching the market because of design flaws or other concerns? What powers do local trading standards officers have in such circumstances, and are they being encouraged to use them? Mr Fleming feels that he has been going round in circles locally, as one organisation passes responsibility to another.

The Pride Colt 8 has no width-indicating lights for night use and no brake lights, so right hon. and hon. Members will understand the obvious risks involved should these scooters be taken on to the highway. Many owners of the scooters say that they are forced to use the roads because local councils have not created a safe pavement environment for them. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East on exactly that point. Clearly, with council budgets being cut, they are very unlikely to be able to commit significant spending to this area, however desirable.

Scoot-A-Long supports disabled people to support themselves in getting out and about to places such as Dartmoor and even taking scooters on to Dartmoor. It also runs training courses and has expressed to me serious concerns about the lack of training available generally and about the quality of some scooters. I tried one of them out, and I have to say that the top speed of 8 mph is extremely fast. The limit on pavements is 4 mph, but untrained people do not know that. John Seamons, an excellent chap from Scoot-A-Long, expressed concerns to me about the way mobility scooters are sold to the public. Some highly reputable companies will ensure that the scooter size is correct for the user and that training is offered, but others are interested simply in a quick sale. Anecdotally, there are people who buy scooters and then are far too scared to use them.

Others adapt scooters in interesting ways. I heard yesterday from a person in Stevenage who had been out shopping when he suddenly heard “Land of Hope and Glory” playing. He turned round to see a gentleman on a mobility scooter who was having trouble reversing. The gentleman on the scooter smiled at him and said, “It’s all right. It helps me because it plays when I’ve reversed into something.” That is not really how it is supposed to work. People need support and training. Although that is an amusing story, it makes a serious point.

There are some excellent examples of organisations attempting to ensure that good advice is given. Norfolk constabulary—the police force—is one of many organisations trying to do good work. It is working alongside Halfords and is one organisation whose advice, as part of its Safe Scoot campaign, is extremely thorough and easy to follow. It encourages safety awareness courses, but those are not compulsory. How many mobility scooter users have read The Highway Code? They might have passed their driving test decades ago, when the rules were slightly different. The Highway Code also applies to people who intend to use scooters on the pavements, but I imagine that very few scooter users have gone to the trouble of reading it. How many users understand the different issues raised by using a mobility scooter in icy conditions or that wearing reflective clothing is a good idea? How many users know that they should not be in bus lanes?

I know that the Minister is aware of the issues that I am raising, but I hope he agrees that with an ageing population action must be taken to ensure that standards are maintained with regard to the safety of these vehicles and that some basic training should be undertaken by all users. It is also important that, if scooters are sold to people who have never driven and they intend to use them on the road, training is compulsory. I am not sure whether they should even be on the road if they have not passed the driving test.

We also need to be aware that younger, able-bodied people are buying mobility scooters. Recently, one was seen cruising along the seafront at a Devon resort—the young man driving it had his golf clubs on the back. We see young women who appear to be able-bodied when they get on and off their scooters using them to do the shopping. A scooter may be an alternative to a small car in some circumstances—a much cheaper alternative, because people do not have to pay all the additional road taxes and so on—but that could spiral out of control if we do not get a grip on it.

What action can the Government take to close some of the loopholes? What action will they take to ensure that the products that come to market are safe and fit for purpose, and have been checked? That will require cross-departmental working. What action will be taken to ensure that records are kept of accidents? I suppose I am asking for a coherent, cross-departmental strategy, across the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the DFT and the Department of Health, pulling together all the safety issues to ensure that proper guidance is always issued and that vehicles cannot be imported for sale in the UK without the designs being checked and being safe.

I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) for securing this debate on an important matter that is of increasing interest to many people—mobility vehicle safety. She referred to the ten-minute rule Bill proposed yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley). She will have noticed that he was arguing that, because these vehicles are a lifeline for many people, we should deregulate to some degree to give them the mobility and independence that we would agree in principle they should have. She argues that they should be safe and that we should take steps to ensure that people are properly trained to use them; everyone would agree with that in principle as well. That is the nub of the problem: both perspectives are valid, but they point in different directions. The Department for Transport is trying to deal with that problem, which is quite complicated, but let me try to give the hon. Lady reassurance about the steps we are taking to try to resolve it.

Officially, the UK has more than 10 million disabled people and our population is increasingly ageing, so mobility vehicles will in future have an even more important role to play in enabling disabled people to live independent lives. It is part of our policy, as it was the previous Government’s, to seek to improve access and safety for all people, including disabled and older people, to help to enhance their quality of life. We consider the issue of mobility scooters in that context.

By the way, if the hon. Lady looks at my written ministerial statement of 1 March, she will see that I indicated our intention to replace the legal term “invalid carriage” as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it is in primary legislation, so we will need a slot to deal with it, but we fully accept that it is an inappropriate term in this day and age.

Our aim is to balance the mobility needs of disabled people with their safety and that of others. The previous Government consulted formally in 2010, and on 1 March this year I published the Government response to that consultation. Let me take first the safety of particular scooter models that are available to buy.

The position on design standards for mobility vehicles sold in the UK is that before a manufacturer can offer a vehicle for sale, it must meet EU manufacturing standards. To obtain that mark in the UK, a manufacturer must first submit a technical file relating to the product to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. On imports, there is nothing to stop someone buying a mobility scooter from another country over the internet without taking advice. If the vehicles do not conform to European standards, trading standards officers have the authority to seize them, but I cannot imagine that that happens very often in practice. I think that many trading standards officers, if they came across such a vehicle, would be very reluctant to seize someone’s lifeline—the vehicle necessary for them to get from A to B.

There are challenges, but the straight answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that someone can bypass the regulations if they buy on the internet, and trading standards officers have the power to deal with that when they come across such vehicles. Part of the problem is that vehicles are not always bought from reputable dealers. They are often bought on the internet, or second hand, or by some other means where the control mechanism is not in place.

There is a case for information to be passed on by GPs—who may recommend a vehicle to a patient—pensioners’ groups and Age Concern to ensure that proper advice is going out to those who are considering buying mobility scooters. It is about information getting to people before they take the step of going to the internet or somewhere else to buy such a vehicle.

I agree that information is important, and I will come on to what we are doing, but it may not be a complete panacea.

One of the main concerns about the carriage of scooters on public transport is whether or not they can be safely secured. The design of the scooter may mean that it does not have appropriate anchorage points, so there is a danger that it may tip up and cause injury. There are international standards to which manufacturers can refer to determine how to secure wheelchairs and their occupants when travelling in a vehicle, but there are no such standards for mobility scooters. That is one of the issues that I want operators and manufacturers to consider when it comes to improving the design of scooters for carriage on public transport.

There are also concerns among public transport operators that people are being sold scooters that are inappropriate for public transport and yet they have an expectation that they can use them. There is a space designed for wheelchairs and some scooters will necessarily be designed at a level above that, so transport operators can legitimately say, “This vehicle is unsuitable for carriage on light rail, tram, train or bus.” I want to ensure that we get some consistency of approach from operators and some clarity for members of the public as to which vehicles can and cannot be carried on public transport. If we end up with vehicles that are heavier and bigger and do what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase argued for yesterday, it will benefit users when they take them on the road, but not when they want to take them on public transport. These are very complicated issues to get right.

As the hon. Lady said, there are also safety concerns about the use of mobility scooters. There are reports of people being injured by them when they are used on pavements, and of users being hit by other vehicles when they are used on the road. Unfortunately, no accident statistics are available to demonstrate that the use of mobility vehicles represents a major public safety problem—the evidence is all anecdotal. However, I have raised the matter, and from 2013 the police will be able to record—I hope they do—whether a mobility vehicle has been involved in an accident on the public highway. Thus we will begin to gather more reputable and objective information than we have at the moment.

I recognise the concerns, however, which is why, in my written ministerial statement of 1 March, I indicated that I do not intend to change the maximum permitted speed of mobility vehicles. I agree that 8 mph does not sound very fast, but it certainly is fast on one of those scooters. I tried one out myself when I went to a scooter place in Rochford, and I was taken aback by its acceleration and speed—and I am someone who has been driving on the roads for some 30 years. I was also rather taken aback by the instability of the vehicle. I believe it is absolutely right not to increase their maximum speed. It is possible that some vehicles might be bought on the internet, without the controls of reputable dealers in this country, but the concerns about the reduced stability of vehicles at speed, and the more serious consequences of any collision if higher speeds are permitted, are such that I will not be increasing the speed at which those vehicles are permitted to travel.

I have also announced that there will be no change to the minimum age for using a class 3 vehicle. There would be safety concerns if a child under 14 years were permitted to take a vehicle on to the public carriageway. However, I have to balance that judgment against the legitimate health and independence benefits that such a vehicle can bring—these are difficult judgments to make—so I have decided to permit class 2 powered vehicles, which are restricted to the pavement, to weigh up to 150 kg unladen in order to help children with more acute clinical needs to have more equipment on their chairs. For reasons of public safety, I have also decided that the use of two-person mobility scooters should not be allowed on the public highway. Two-person scooters are likely to be heavier than the maximum legal weight limit—150 kg for class 3 vehicles. Some two-person models also exceed the maximum speed limit of 8 mph.

The consultation in 2010 considered whether the law is adequate or whether there should be a new means of tackling misuse of these vehicles. I have concluded that no new legislation is required—not even to make these vehicles more conspicuous—but I have asked officials to examine how current legislation could be better enforced. That does not mean that we are looking to prosecute more mobility scooter users. The laws relating to mobility vehicles are not the same as road traffic laws that apply to motor vehicles, but there is legislation dating from Victorian times that can be used to control reckless driving and we want this to be more widely publicised and better understood.

Issues remain around insurance, eyesight tests and training, which brings us on to the question of what we can do to help people who use these vehicles. There is currently no mandatory requirement to insure vehicles, although we strongly recommend that individuals take out insurance voluntarily, or to have eyesight tests, although my Department has for many years advised that people should be able to read a number plate at a distance of 40 feet. I want to look at how the test can be made more practical so that there is much greater take up. I have concluded that mandatory eyesight testing is not necessary for users of class 2 scooters, which are restricted to the pavement, but I am clear that the position in respect of class 3 scooters requires further consideration. I am talking about the vehicles that can travel at 8 mph as opposed to 4 mph and that can be allowed on the highway.

The consultation responses in 2010 emphasised real concerns that mandatory insurance and training could unfairly penalise a particularly vulnerable section of the community. However, we want to find ways to achieve greater take-up of insurance and training, which is why I have been talking to key stakeholders. I held a meeting only yesterday with the trade association, vehicle training organisations, the insurance industry and disabled charities and organisations to review the available evidence and options relating to insurance and the use of specialist training providers. My written statement on 1 March deliberately left open the questions of eyesight testing, insurance and training because I wanted to take advice from everyone concerned, including users, disabled charities and road safety people to try to get to a position that everybody finds comfortable. It was a useful meeting, and my officials have taken away the comments and will use them to take the next stage forward. As the hon. Lady rightly said, it would be helpful if more training was available.

Norfolk constabulary was represented at the meeting yesterday. The hon. Lady mentioned that county, where some really good work has been done—indeed I was in Norwich before coming to this debate. We can learn from Norfolk’s example. The trouble with Norfolk is not that it is not doing the right thing—it is—but that its practice is not emulated everywhere. We need to find a way of rolling that practice out right across England and Wales—I hope that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will forgive me, but England and Wales are my responsibility—to ensure that that training is available more widely. That is one of the issues that we are trying to address sensibly for the future.

There are clearly issues about basic training and about the safety of these vehicles, particularly ones that have slipped in under the net and do not meet European Union standards. I am not able to answer the hon. Lady’s question about whether models have been stopped from being brought into the country, but I will raise the matter with MHRA. Cross-departmental work on the issue is under way. We have been in touch with the Department of Health, and if she was in the Chamber yesterday, she will have seen that the Minister for Disabled People from the Department for Work and Pensions was with me on the Treasury Bench to listen to the ten-minute rule Bill. We are trying to work collaboratively across Departments.

I acknowledge the work that is going on with all the groups that the Minister has mentioned, but use of these vehicles by people who are neither elderly nor disabled is increasing, and that is very worrying.

That is a relatively new issue. I have not yet come across anyone going to play golf in a mobility scooter, although I have no doubt that it does happen; nor have I come across scooters that play “Land of Hope and Glory”. I am sure that whoever composed that particular tune did not have reversible scooters in mind. None the less, I take the hon. Lady’s word for it. If these scooters are now being used by groups for whom they are not designed, particularly if people are using them to avoid the requirements of road traffic legislation for other vehicles, that is a serious matter that I will take away to consider.

I hope that I have managed to convince the hon. Lady of two things: first, that we are seized of the need to make progress and we are trying to do so in a constructive and consensual way; and secondly, that this is not an easy issue. There are conflicting demands on us from different directions. Coming up with an answer that meets everybody’s aspirations will be difficult, but we will try.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.