Fitness-to-drive rules have been described as “open to abuse” and “not fit for purpose” after it emerged that no one has been prosecuted for giving a false declaration.
The fatal accident inquiry (FAI) into the Glasgow bin lorry crash has heard claims that the driver, Harry Clarke, lied to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) about his health.
In February, prosecutors in Scotland ruled out any criminal charges against the driver, or his employer, Glasgow City Council, after deciding there was no evidence that either was to blame for the crash.
Now, the DVLA has also announced Clarke will not face any legal action after it was alleged he hadn’t disclosed health issues relating to his large goods vehicle (LGV) licence.
The FAI heard Clarke blacked out at the wheel of a stationary bus while employed as a driver with First Bus in April 2010. It also emerged he had not fully revealed this in applications for an LGV licence with the DVLA, and on health assessments for a job application with Glasgow City Council.
Dr Wyn Parry, chief medical adviser to the DVLA, told the FAI that the agency would not be pursuing charges relating to the non-disclosure and would respect “the decision of the Crown Office in Scotland not to prosecute”.
A driver is required by law to sign a form saying they meet the required medical standards when applying for a licence for the first time. However, lorry and bus drivers face a much stricter regime due to the size and weight of the vehicle and the length of time the driver may spend at the wheel.
They have to undergo an initial health check when applying and, if over the age of 45, must then have regular health checks when renewing. Under-45s are required to sign a form when they renew their licence, saying they meet the required medical standards to drive (see panel, right).
However, Dr Parry told the inquiry that the DVLA’s system of self-declaration and detection of relevant health issues among drivers had a “weakness”. He also said it exposed applicants to a “huge level of temptation”.
It is a criminal offence not to inform the DVLA of a medical condition that may affect your ability to drive and anyone giving misleading information could face up to two years in prison. However, Dr Parry told the court that, to the best of his knowledge, nobody had ever been prosecuted for giving a false health declaration.
David Wilson, a solicitor acting for the family of one of the crash victims, said the families were “extremely shocked” no one had faced legal action.
He continued: “The DVLA is dependent on drivers making them aware of any medical conditions that will prevent them from driving. This is a system that is open to abuse. Drivers aren’t necessarily going to want to declare things that may lead to them losing their job or making them unemployable.”
The inquiry heard that applicants for an LGV licence can choose to go to their own GP for a medical assessment or to an occupational doctor appointed by their employer. However, an applicant’s medical records are not usually made available to the occupational doctor.
Dr Parry said one solution would be for applicants to be required to give their permission for their medical records to be made available. Another potential solution, he said, would be for the occupational doctor doing the medical to check with the applicant’s GP.
Dr Ronald Neville, a GP in Dundee who prepares expert reports on drivers’ fitness to drive, told the FAI the DVLA’s system for self-reporting was “not fit for practice”, because it was possible for drivers to avoid the disclosure of “very important” information.
He prepared a medical report on Clarke after the bin lorry crash. It gave the most likely diagnosis of his condition as neurocardiogenic syncope – a temporary loss of consciousness associated with a drop in blood pressure.
Glasgow City Council told the inquiry that if this had been diagnosed after Clarke had blacked out in 2010, they would never have employed him.
However, the local authority’s recruitment process has also faced criticism for failing to establish Clarke’s health issues.
Dorothy Bain QC, representing the family of one of the crash victims, claimed there were “significant shortcomings” in the council’s recruitment process.
Clarke was first employed by the council in January 2011, to drive a minibus transporting schoolchildren with special needs. However, the council was not aware he had been suspended by his previous employer, First Bus, over a dispute about his timekeeping, or the blackout in 2010.
Glasgow Sheriff Court also heard Clarke failed to disclose his medical history on a Bupa form for the council when he was promoted to driving heavier vehicles.
Bain questioned Geraldine Ham, a human resources manager at the council, over the local authority’s recruitment process.
The lawyer said: “At the stage that Mr Clarke was employed by the council to transport children with special needs, we can see significant shortcomings in the council process for recruitment.”
Ham told the inquiry the local authority tried to ensure the necessary employment processes were in place.
However, Bain said the inquiry had seen where Clarke “doesn’t tell the council the truth, the recruitment process was not adequate in order to prevent his employment”. Ham agreed.
The inquiry has revealed Clarke suffered bouts of dizziness in 1976, fainted at work while a lorry driver in 1989 and suffered dizziness for months in 1994, in addition to the incident at First Bus in 2010.
Solicitor advocate Ronald Conway, representing one of the bereaved families, asked Ham if there was anything to prevent the council from asking successful applicants for driving jobs to produce their medical records? She replied: “No, but they would have to give consent.”
Following the allegations made in court, Clarke has been suspended by the council pending a full disciplinary investigation.
Six people were killed and 15 were injured when the bin lorry crashed on December 22 last year.
Relatives of two of the victims of the Glasgow bin lorry crash have dropped their calls for an adjournment.
The inquiry continues.
Licence validity and renewals
Minibus, bus and lorry drivers passing a driving test from January 19, 2013
For drivers passing their driving test in categories C, CE, C1, C1E, D, DE, D1 or D1E after January 19, 2013, the licence is valid for five years.
Drivers have to undergo an initial health check when applying for a licence and, every five years up to age 45, they will need to sign a declaration to show they still meet the medical standards.
After they reach 45, they will need to provide a medical examination report every five years to renew their driving entitlement.
Minibus, bus and lorry drivers passing a driving test before January 19, 2013
If a driver is under 45 years old and passed a driving test in one of the categories below, they will come under the new rules when they renew their driving licence.
The categories affected are C, CE, C1, C1E, D, DE, D1 or D1E.
When they renew their licence, they will receive a licence valid for five years, and they will need to confirm they still meet the medical standards.
If they apply to replace their licence because it is lost or stolen, or their personal details have changed, their new licence will run until the end of their original period.
However, if a driver updates their photo at the same time, they will come under the new five-year rule.
Drivers over 45 will continue to renew their entitlement as they do now. When they renew their licence at the end of a five-year period, they will need to provide a medical examination report.