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Seeing is believing

Eric Barton pulls focus on vision and driving

There's an old adage that what you see is what you get. True in some cases but quite anathema in some others. Being blind stupid is one thing, but being partially blind or unsighted whilst in charge of two tons of motorised metal, which is combusting along at 40mph or 70mph is downright dangerous.

It beggars belief that some drivers in the UK are to this day driving whilst under the influence of bad or defective vision. I’ve often watched drivers squinting as they hurl themselves towards a junction. It’s my guess that the screech of brakes and burning rubber is due to them blundering onto the stop sign or traffic lights far too late. Mind you better late than never I suppose.

However there has been motion afoot in July to rectify this possible blind spot. The JUL-EYE campaign has had specialist independent opticians all over the UK highlighting the need for regular eye tests and raising the overall importance of eye health. Its new website has a revealing quiz to calculate if you are eyes-wise, a visionary role model or living in the dark ages, based on your individual Eye-Q score.

Campaign spokesman and optician Andy Hepworth said, ‘we Brits aren’t always good at having regular eye examinations, so once a year JUL-EYE will prompt us to book an eye exam’.

Currently just over 70% of the UK population hold a driving licence. With an ever- ageing population the proportion of people who fail to meet the visual requirements is increasing which in itself is inherently worrying. And it’s not just our Senior Citizens; there’s a broad brush of mild vision failures across the board.

Acuity is the clinical term for being able to see. The DVLA use this as their buzz word for visual standards and minima. The visual acuity requirements to hold a Group 1 and Group 2, Bus LGV etc are specified in terms of the number plate test.

The exact wording of the requirement is ‘To read in good light (with the aid of glasses or contact lenses if worn), a registration mark fixed to a motor vehicle and containing characters 79mm high and 50mm wide from 20 metres. It is the responsibility of the driver to ensure they meet all standards’. At your driving test the examiner will ask you to read a number plate.

That’s all fine and well. But it’s after this point where the system falls apart. No other test is made again until you become an ‘antique’ and a licence renewal is needed. Safe driving requires a combination of good vision, adequate visual field, the ability to spread attention over the field of view and of course motor skills. Poor driver vision costs the UK an estimated £33M a year and results in 2,900 casualties, according to a report commissioned by insurer Royal Sun Alliance (RSA).

The report called for changes to UK law. RSA estimated it would generate annual net savings to the UK economy of up to £14.4M by year ten. It’s true to say that drivers are risking lives by taking to the roads with impaired vision. A study found 20% of motorists aged 35 to 55 are aware they cannot see clearly. That’s outrageous. Middle-aged men like me are apparently the worst culprits, with one in three admitting they would never go for an eye test. A quarter said they ’couldn’t be bothered’ to get a check-up, while 18% said glasses or contacts were too expensive.

Astonishingly, half claimed they were worried glasses would make them look older or ‘un-cool’. Have this lot never heard of designer frames? The study by the College of Optometrists in London also found 28% put off a test for up to six months after noticing their sight was deteriorating and an alarming 21% put it off for up to five years.

That’s ridiculous, how can you drive about half blind? If the police think you’re driving with impaired vision they can make you take a number plate test there and then by the roadside… and if you fail, then it's points and a fine. In the extreme cases where a significant accident was caused by the driver with impaired vision, then a ban can also be applied.

Almost 6000 drivers have already been banned. And as another scary footnote is your insurance also becomes invalid. Mind you think yourself lucky you’re not in South Wales. The South Wales Traffic cops recently decided to spot check drivers to find out if their vision was up to scratch. Drivers in Talbot Green, Cardiff, Aberdare and Rhondda were asked to read the registration plate of a vehicle parked 20m (65ft) away. New technology set up by the DVLA and police means a licence can be revoked in hours, whereas it used to take days.

Supt Steve Furnham, South Wales Police said, ‘our officers now use hand-held devices to report offending drivers, and a quick email response from the DVLA means a licence can be revoked on the same day somebody is caught’. So you see, seeing really is believing and if (through the haze of your bad eyesight) you detect a blue flashing light behind you, it might be an imminent vision test on the way. I think I’d rather go to the opticians for that.

To take part in the online free test