Government proposals on driver eyesight tests criticised by bereaved family and national charity

31 March 2011

From: Brake, the road safety charity

Tel: 01484 559909 Out of hours: 07976 069159

A family bereaved by a driver with below-standard eyesight is spearheading a campaign to persuade the Government to rethink their approach to driver eyesight, following proposals to relax regulations.

Joy Barnes from Sheffield, whose niece Fiona was killed by a driver with defective eyesight (see below), is backing calls for Government action by national charity Brake, the Eye Health Alliance and Specsavers. They are appealing to the Government to recognise that good eyesight is one of the most fundamental safety requirements for driving, and introduce a scientifically recognised method for testing eyesight (replacing number-plate tests) and regular retesting.

The campaign is supported by a Brake survey released today showing strong public support for regular eyesight testing; 75% of drivers support compulsory eyesight testing for drivers every five years.[1] 

These changes would ensure compliance with a European Union directive [2] aimed at harmonising standards of driver vision.

However, a Government paper currently open to consultation proposes making the current test even easier, by reducing the distance from which drivers have to read a number-plate to just 17 metres. Read Brake’s consultation response.

Current regulations

During the driving test, the examiner gives the driver three chances to read a number-plate from 20 metres for vehicles displaying the new-style number plate or 20.5 metres for vehicles displaying old-style plates. After that drivers (of cars, small vans and motorbikes) won’t have to take any form of eye test to keep their licence for the rest of their life. They only have to take an eye test if they report serious vision impairment to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). Once they reach age 70, they are asked to confirm they have acceptable vision to renew their licence, but they are not required to prove this.

Government proposals

The Government has an opportunity to ensure all drivers have safe vision by amending legislation to comply with a new EU Directive. But instead of acting to make roads safer, the Department for Transport has proposed that the standard eyesight test for private drivers be made easier. Drivers would only be required to read a number plate from 17 metres (about four car lengths, or the average stopping distance for cars at 25mph). There is no mention of changing the test or introducing mandatory regular testing. Read the proposals on driver eyesight standards here.

Campaign calls for action

Having good eyesight is one of the most basic requirements of safe driving. Being an experienced and skilled driver who is aware of the dangers of the roads is meaningless if you are unable to spot hazards in time due to poor eyesight.

Brake, the Eye Health Alliance and Specsavers are calling for the Government to introduce a requirement for eye tests to be carried out by qualified optometrists or medical practitioners using a scientifically-recognised method.

  • The European Directives on Driving Licences contain new eyesight standards that drivers must meet to be fit to drive. The distance number plate test is not an accurate way of checking drivers meet these requirements as it does not test for peripheral vision (visual field) [3]. It also can’t test for contrast sensitivity, glare sensitivity and ocular motility, which are all important for safe driving [4].
  • The number-plate test can’t accurately test how well a driver can see distance. It is not standardised, nor validated. Depending on the sequence of letters and numbers in the number plate the ease of reading will vary. Results can also vary in different lighting or weather conditions [5].

They are also calling for regular retesting of drivers at least every 10 years, which could be done at the same time as applying for a new photocard.

  • Eyesight needs to be checked regularly throughout a driver’s lifetime as many people’s eyesight deteriorates over time – sometimes without being obvious. According to the International Glaucoma Association, a person can lose 40% of their vision before they realise they have a problem with their eyesight [6].
  • Relying on people to manage their own vision and self-report problems to the DVLA isn’t working. Research has already shown that one in six drivers cannot see well enough to pass the basic eyesight test [7].

Julie Townsend, campaigns director of Brake, said: “As a charity that supports families devastated by road deaths and injuries, we recognise how vital it is to ensure all drivers have good eyesight. Being able to see clearly what’s in front and around you is fundamental to safe, responsible driving. So it’s baffling that the Government proposes making the number-plate test even easier, rather than taking the opportunity to tighten up regulations. We hope to see common sense winning through: to make our roads safer we need a scientific eyesight test carried out at the start of your driving career and regularly throughout it.”

Heather Marshall, Eye Health Alliance, said: “Eyesight can change gradually over a period of time so many drivers may not even be aware that they have a problem with their vision. It is extremely disappointing that the Government has not taken the opportunity of the new EU regulations to replace the outdated number plate test with a standardised test at regular intervals, to ensure that all drivers are not putting themselves and others at risk unnecessarily.” 

Paul Carroll, Director of Professional Services for Specsavers, a corporate partner and supporter of Brake, said: “'Surely no one can honestly argue that the number plate test is an adequate substitute for a proper eye test.  As drivers, we all have a personal responsibility to check that our vision does not place us, other road users or pedestrians at risk.  This can be done easily by making an appointment for an eye test with your local optician – many of whom are now open on Sundays. The Government should be using this as an opportunity to improve safety – not to reduce standards.”

Meg Munn MP said: “The death of Fiona was tragic and could have been avoided. It is astonishing that in the 21st century the eyesight test involves reading number plates. It is time that the Government understood the devastation caused by road deaths. Now is the time to put in place a proper eye sight test."

Advice for drivers

  • Get your eyes tested at least every two years, even if you think your eyesight is perfect. Your eyesight can deteriorate without you noticing.
  • If you notice deterioration, get tested straight away.
  • This applies to all ages, but is especially important if you are over 50, when eyesight is more likely to deteriorate
  • If you are taking medication or suffer from any medical conditions, check with your doctor or optometrist if it could affect your driving or vision.

If you need glasses or contact lenses:

  • Never drive without them, and keep them clean. Keep a spare pair in your vehicle if you are prone to forget.
  • Choose glasses with thin or no rims, which give you a greater field of vision.
  • Choose glasses with anti-reflective coating, which can help reduce glare at night.
  • If you wear glasses, keep a pair of prescription sunglasses in your vehicle.
  • Avoid ‘night-driving glasses’. There is no evidence that they help and they may actually make vision worse [8].
  • Avoid wearing tinted glasses at night-time or during bad weather.

Case study

Fiona Buckley, 43, was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, so spent much of her adult life in a wheelchair. She was a bubbly person who loved nothing more than chatting to people. She worked in the city centre Shop Mobility Service and the Royal Hallamshire Hospital as a welcomer. In her younger days Fiona was an accomplished swimmer and later became an avid photographer and scrabble player. Her family describe Fiona as a generous and courageous spirit.

At 10pm on 6 December 2008, Fiona was crossing the road with her friend Kay Pilley, 46, walking just behind. Witnesses said that Raymond Hampshire, 87, did not attempt to overtake them or brake. He ran straight into Fiona and Kay as they were approaching the other side, and Fiona was thrown over his car. She suffered a major head injury and broke her pelvis, spine and leg. She died in hospital six weeks later from multi-organ failure. Kay suffered head and knee injuries and was treated at hospital. She could not remember what happened.

Police officers tested Hampshire’s eyesight and he could not read a car number plate from the required distance of 20.5 metres. He was later found to have cataracts in both eyes which had probably been there for 18 months. A doctor said it would give him "foggy or hazy" sight which could have rendered Fiona almost invisible to him. He also suffered from age-related macular degeneration, which blurs the central vision. With his right eye he could only see from six metres what people with good vision can read from 24 metres.

Hampshire admitted causing death by careless driving. However, the judge decided not to punish Hampshire for killing Fiona. He was given just three penalty points.

Joy contacted her local MP, Meg Munn, who was moved to help her with her campaign.

Fiona’s Aunt, Joy Barnes from Sheffield, said: “Fiona’s death hit us all hard. Hampshire should not have been on the roads with such poor eyesight and it is a travesty that nothing is done to make sure that drivers meet a minimum standard of sight. If this driver had been made to have a sight test to keep his licence then Fiona would still be with us.” 

For interviews with Joy or a Brake spokesperson, call 01484 559909 or email

About Brake

Brake is an independent national road safety charity. Brake exists to stop the six deaths and 70 serious injuries that happen on UK roads every day and to care for families bereaved and seriously injured in road crashes. Brake produces educational road safety literature, runs community training programmes and runs events including Road Safety Week (21-27 November 2011). Brake’s Fleet Safety Forum provides up-to-date fleet safety resources to fleet managers and runs a year-round programme of events. Brake’s support division cares for road crash victims through a helpline and other services.


[1] 1,006 drivers were surveyed by Brake volunteers in a variety of locations around the UK
[2] COMMISSION DIRECTIVE 2009/113/EC , Official Journal of the European Union, 2009
[3] Eye Health Alliance, 2011
[4] The 30th World Ophthalmology Congress Sao Paulo, Brazil, International Council of Ophthalmology, 2006
[5] Eye Health Alliance, 2011
[6] World Glaucoma Day, International Glaucoma Association and Royal National Institute for the Blind, 2009
[7] Egg motor insurance, 2011
[8] The Eyecare Trust, 2005