Almost 300 injuries on UK roads each year are estimated to be caused by drivers with poor vision. The Association of Optometrists (AOP) are running an ongoing campaign, Don't Swerve a Sight Test, to press for changes in the laws around vision tests and driving and also to urge motorists to have their sight tested regularly.
'We want to make our roads as safe as possible,' says Farah Topia, optometrist and spokesperson for the AOP. 'But currently our laws on driving and vision are among the most lax in Europe. We are campaigning for improvements in the way vision is checked beginning with the driving test and then continuing throughout a motorist’s driving life.'
The driving test eyesight check
The driving test is a rite of passage that we can all remember. At the beginning we will have been asked by our examiner to read a vehicle number plate from a distance of 20 metres. This check was introduced in the UK in 1937 and is one of the few elements of the driving test that has barely changed. Once that was out of the way the practical part of the test began and hopefully ended with symbolically torn up L plates.
The eyesight check will have been supervised by a driving test centre employee – this is also the case in Cyprus, The Netherlands and Norway.
However in the vast majority of European countries, including Germany, Greece and Finland the check is carried out by a doctor or qualified vision specialist.
91% of optometrists don't believe that the current UK 'read a number plate' sight requirements are sufficient as they don't cover peripheral vision, vision over distance and other key issues. The AOP is calling for a change in the law that would require drivers to have a comprehensive vision check when they first apply for their licence.
Frequency of eyesight checks
After the driving test check we can now drive for the rest of our lives under current UK law without ever being required to take another eyesight test. The Driver Vehicle and Licensing Agency (DVLA) states that motorists do have a legal responsibility to ensure their vision meets the minimum standard but they don't have to provide proof of a check by a qualified professional.
A key part of the AOP campaign is more frequent as well as more comprehensive vision checks – once every 10 years to coincide with the renewal of the photocard driving licence. 'Ideally everyone should have their eyes tested every two years,' says Farah. 'But once every ten years would be a significant change for the better and also easy to implement from an administrative point of view.'
The road safety charity Brake also support more frequent checks and urges the government to raise awareness by providing reminders for example on motorway gantries and official motoring paperwork.
Eyesight checks in later life
The current situation is that once reaching 70 drivers are asked to renew their licence every three years. They have to confirm that they aren't prevented from driving for any reason and that their vision meets the minimum legal requirements. However there is no requirement to provide independent proof that they have had their eyesight tested.
The AOP believe that drivers over 70 should have more frequent mandatory eyesight checks because as people age their vision can change at a faster rate.
Is your vision as good as it could be?
When it comes to something as important as your vision and driving we should all be aiming to do more than 'meet the minimum requirement'. Even if you don't need glasses for reading and are able to read a number plate at 20 metres easily, there may well be room for improvement. 'As well as sight issues an optometrist can check the eye for signs of underlying health conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure' says Farah. 'It also serves as a valuable general health check.'
Free NHS eye tests are available to the over 60s and to people with certain health conditions or in receipt of some state benefits. Also many optician chains offer free eye tests so do an internet search and see what's available.
What sort of glasses or contact lenses?
For some motorists varifocal lenses which allow them to see the road ahead but also check a sat nav work best, whilst for others having separate reading and driving glasses is a better option. It's a personal choice and one you can discuss at your eye test. 'Using the right pair of spectacles or contact lenses for your lifestyle goes beyond simply getting the correct prescription,' says Farah. 'For example, if you often find yourself struggling with glare when driving your optometrist can advise you on what coatings or lenses could be used to reduce this.'
If your vision isn't good enough to drive
If your eyesight isn't good enough to drive even when assisted by spectacles or contact lenses, then it's important to accept that and surrender your driving licence.
Recent research by the Association of Optometrists has revealed that 12% of motorists say they would continue to drive as normal even if they were told that their vision could not be corrected to reach the legal standard, whilst 42% would continue to drive in some capacity such as only driving locally. 'These statistics are very worrying,' says Farah. 'If you're driving with vision below the legal standard, there is no such thing as a 'safe distance'. It's important to remember that our sight can change without us noticing. Often our brains fill in the 'gaps' in our vision but when driving this can mean the difference between spotting or missing a pedestrian or vulnerable road user.'
'Driving at night can be the most problematic area as our eyes age,' says Richard Gladman, head of driving and riding standards at road safety charity IAM RoadSmart. 'It is a scientific fact that as we get older our eyes become less sensitive to light. Consult a professional and get the best possible glasses or contact lenses for your vision. And if you still struggle to see clearly after dark then avoiding night time driving is a wise precaution.'
Tips for driving at night
Police testing eyesight at the roadside
The police have the legal power to test a motorist's eyesight at the roadside and revoke their licence instantly if it doesn't meet the minimum legal standard.
Don't forget your specs – or contact lenses
If you have been prescribed glasses or contact lenses for driving don't forget to wear them for every journey. Avoid dutifully putting them on for longer journeys but not bothering if you're just nipping out to the shops. An accident can happen at any time.
In the case of spectacles it's important to have a spare pair in case they are mislaid or break and also to have a spare pair of sunglasses in the car at all times. Low sun on a wet road in winter can be every bit as problematic as the dazzling summer sun when it comes to affecting your vision.
'And make sure that you clean your glasses regularly,' adds Richard Gladman. 'Even a pristine windscreen will seem dirty if the lenses of your glasses are covered in fingerprints.'
Driving tips for older drivers
Becoming a confident driver again
'I made an appointment to get my eyesight checked because I realised I was having problems with my vision when driving, particularly at night,' says Aileen Scoular, 54 from London. 'I used to feel tense and started to dread getting into the car at all. The optician I saw was very helpful and explained it's a very common problem for someone of my age. I now use driving glasses – a plain pair and a polarised pair for sunny days which are fantastic and have helped me feel confident again.'