Action needed to make major roads more accessible, says watchdog

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A transport watchdog is calling for action to make the network of major roads across England more accessible to disabled drivers and passengers.

A new Transport Focus report, An Accessible Road Network?, centres mainly on the barriers disabled people face in using roadside services, as well as the problems caused for some disabled drivers who become stuck in long traffic jams or whose vehicles break down.

Among the concerns raised by disabled people interviewed by Transport Focus was the difficulty of escaping their vehicle quickly and scaling the barrier at the side of the road after breaking down.

There were also concerns that breakdown and recovery staff were not trained to deal with disabled drivers and passengers and adapted vehicles.

The report says it is unclear if minimum training requirements are in place for breakdown and recovery services, and it calls for all such organisations to “review and improve the disability awareness training given to all their staff”.

Those interviewed also raised long-standing concerns about the difficulty of securing assistance to refuel vehicles at filling stations, with the report calling on petrol retailers to ensure they meet their obligations under the Equality Act 2010.

Disabled interviewees also said that services on ‘A’ roads often do not have accessible toilets, while there were also reports of those accessible toilets that were available being used to store bins or staff bicycles.

The report says there are currently only 20 Changing Places toilets – facilities with extra space and equipment for disabled people who cannot use standard accessible toilets – in place or planned at roadside services in England, just two of which are at ‘A’ road services.

It calls on the Department for Transport (DfT) to fulfil the pledge in its inclusive transport strategy that it would spend £2 million to support the installation of more Changing Places facilities in motorway services.

Among the report’s other recommendations is a call for the government to ensure that providers of roadside services allow more than two hours’ free parking for disabled drivers and passengers because they often need extra time.

And Transport Focus calls on DfT to carry out research to identify the number and location of driving instructors trained to help those with learning difficulties or hearing impairments, which would “enable an assessment to be made as to whether there are sufficient numbers in all parts of the country”.

There are also recommendations for Highways England, including a call for it to update and publicise information about the help available to disabled people who are caught in traffic jams and need urgent assistance, and who they should call if their vehicles break down.

There is also a call for Highways England – which runs England’s network of motorways and ‘A’ roads – to compile and maintain accurate information about facilities provided for disabled road-users at services on its roads.

And the report says that the companies that run roadside services should strengthen efforts to ensure that accessible parking spaces are only used by motorists with blue badges.

The report, published today (Thursday), was based on interviews with 50 disabled drivers and passengers, focus groups and interviews with service-providers and experts, including the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), which advises the government on transport access issues.

Helen Dolphin, a DPTAC member [but not speaking on behalf of the committee]and an independent mobility consultant, said: “Thanks to the Motability scheme and sophisticated car adaptations, many disabled people are able to drive and this means that the road network may need to make some changes to ensure disabled people can use the roads as safely as every other driver.”

Dolphin, herself a disabled driver, added: “I am therefore pleased that this report has highlighted many issues that I have been raising for many years and I sincerely hope that the recommendations put forward will be carried out.” 

DfT today (Thursday) announced a partnership with the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK to allocate the £2 million funding for new Changing Places toilets at motorway services, which will be installed in “the early 2020s”.

But a DfT spokeswoman also said that motorway services operators were required to provide up to two hours free parking and that charging for longer parking periods was “a commercial matter for the operators”.

She added: “Disabled people who need specially qualified driving instructions can speak to the Association of Disability Driving Instructors for impartial advice.

“In the longer term, we recognise the need for further research to understand the barriers to transport that people with cognitive, behavioural and mental health conditions may face.

“As outlined in our response to the consultation on the Accessibility Action Plan, we intend to proceed with this research by 2022.”

Highways England welcomed the Transport Focus report and said it would be launching a new National Mobility and Disabled Road User Forum next month, which it said would help inform its response to the recommendations.

It said it had already developed messages to display on electronic signs to “better inform road users about what is happening when they are caught up in incidents on our roads, specifically addressing the concerns of those trapped in traffic”.

It also said it would “refresh” disability-related training for its traffic officers and would “work with disability and mobility forums to define what information is important to road users, and how they want that information shared”.

A Highways England spokeswoman said: “We will work with operators to collect information about their roadside facilities, and will look at ways to publish it that reach the road users that need it.”

And she said the agency would engage with operators of services “to discuss how we can work together to consider areas raised in the research, such as extending parking times where appropriate, and the layout of service areas”.

She said Highways England was “already in discussions with DfT about enabling the construction of more Changing Places facilities at motorway service areas”, while operators of services had been “actively engaging with Highways England about existing provision, usage and future funding” of accessible toilets.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, said: “Disabled road users tell us how driving gives them independence and a sense of freedom when using public transport may not be possible.

“More must be done to remove the barriers that disabled people face when they travel on the road network.

“Until now, much of the transport debate around disability has been mostly about public transport.

“This research widens the discussion to people who drive or are driven, a vital form of mobility for many people.”

 

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