Eyesight for driving: the essential guide

A simple eye test could save lives, spot underlying illness, reduce accidents and stop drivers from having their licences revoked. So why is it such a blind spot for business?

Eyesight is often overlooked as a factor in road safety. Research by National Eye Health Week in the UK, for example, estimates that there are nine million drivers on the country’s roads with vision that falls below the legal standards for driving.

And it’s a worldwide problem. According to Optometry Australia’s 2020 Vision Index 19% of Australians aged 35-54 find it difficult to read road signs while driving. Among Australians who drive regularly, 22% admit they squint at night to “see better”, while 8% have trouble seeing traffic lights at night.

This lack of foresight has serious implications. A study by Direct Line has found that while 16% of drivers surveyed had been in an accident in the two years previously, this increased to 67% for those who needed glasses or contact lenses but didn’t wear them.

With vision degrading with age and with more working drivers’ retirement ages increasing over time, the worry is that this problem is going to get worse if companies and their drivers are not forced to take more regular tests. Driving while ‘medically unfit’ is typically a criminal offence and drivers could face a large fine. They may also be prosecuted if involved in an accident.

Furthermore, the benefits of eye tests go beyond driving. Along with visual acuity and field of vision, optometrists will check for signs of brain tumours, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma.

Not surprisingly, there have been calls to make regular eye tests mandatory for drivers. In the UK, the company Licence Bureau has urged businesses with fleets to make mandatory eye tests a standard element of their road-safety compliance programmes. The firm’s sales director Steve Pinchen says: “The statistics should ring alarm bells for any business operating a fleet because the risks are significant. It should be at the top of the list of priorities.”

Sight standards for driving vary

Most countries tend to require drivers to be able to read a licence plate from a distance of roughly 20m. However, some countries, notably Italy and Turkey, require a much higher standard of eyesight (40m). Canada has a surprisingly low threshold (16m), while India has one of the least onerous requirements (13m). In addition, some countries, for example the Republic of Ireland, have legislation that requires assessment of contrast sensitivity, glare and twilight vision.

Eyesight for driving is an even bigger issue in developing countries

It’s estimated that more than 200,000 people are killed on India’s roads each year. When Sightsavers screened 17,500 Indian truck drivers, it found that almost half (46.7%) of those driving without glasses needed them to see clearly. A separate study found that more than 60% of truck drivers had trouble seeing distant objects.

A spokesman for the charity said: “We know there are millions of drivers on main roads around the world who can’t see properly. The biggest difference for people in developing countries is that they are less likely to have access to good-quality eye health services, even glasses. They are also the ones who are hit hardest by road traffic accidents and fatalities.”

Look out for the warning signs

For most people, eyesight changes begin with a gradual decline in vision. Sight loss can develop slowly, and can be barely noticeable; it is possible to lose up to 40% of your vision without noticing. Around the age of 50, the risk of diabetes, stroke and other health conditions caused by lifestyle and diet begins to increase.

Early signs that your sight may be changing are: eye strain; headaches; pressure behind the eye; double vision; needing a brighter light to read; noticing halos around lights; difficulty seeing at night or in changing light. If drivers are at all unsure, they should consult an optometrist. 

Tips for drivers

The College of Optometrists advises that if you need to wear glasses for driving, make sure you wear them, even for short trips – and keep a spare pair in the car. Contact-wearers should also keep spare glasses in the car. Because glare can be a problem when the sun is low in the sky, the College recommends keeping a pair of prescription sunglasses (or clip-ons) in the car.

It also recommends choosing glasses with thinner sides for driving as they don’t block side vision as much. Finally, ‘night driving glasses’ with amber-coloured plastic lenses are not recommended as they restrict the amount of light entering your eyes and may cause more problems than they solve. 

The value of regular testing

As with Licence Bureau, the UK road-safety organisation GEM Motoring Assist has suggested the current eyesight tests for drivers are ‘long out of date’ and calls for mandatory tests every 10 years.

Chief Executive Neil Worth says: “Tests of this kind would not only make our roads safer, saving lives, disability and many millions of pounds through the reduction in the number of crashes, but they would also play a vital role in the early diagnosis of many other costly medical conditions, irrespective of driving.” 


What can you do as an employer?

To ensure the safety of their employees and the public, Global Fleet Champions, recommends the following measures for employers/fleet managers

  • Encourage drivers to undergo regular eye tests with an eye-care professional; 

  • Offer free or subsidised eye-tests to employees; 

  • Educate employees about good eye health practices; send regular e-bulletins and offer training workshops to share information and advice; 

  • Make staff aware that if they need to wear glasses or contact lenses for driving, they must do so at all times; 

  • Communicate company policy on eye health to all employees; 

  • Undertake a risk assessment of all driving employees and take action to reduce any risks to employees and other road users that are identified; 

  • Run targeted interventions to remind drivers when their eye tests are due; 

  • Encourage drivers to keep their windscreens clean – ensure that windscreen wipers are working well and that water bottles are topped up;

  • Encourage good driving habits among employees.

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