Driver eyesight

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Key facts

  • More than two million people in the UK suffer from sight loss [1];
  • Poor eyesight contributed to 196 road crashes in 2018, including three fatal crashes [2];
  • In 2019, 4,534 driving licences were revoked due to impaired vision [3];

Introduction

Good eyesight is one of the most basic requirements of safe driving. Drivers need to be able to clearly see road signs and pedestrians as well as other vehicles. It’s also important that they can accurately judge speed, distance and movement. If a driver’s eyesight is impaired, it is much more likely that they will be involved in a road crash.

Poor vision increases a driver’s crash risk by limiting their ability to recognise hazards, and increasing their reaction times [4]. More than two million people in the UK are estimated to be living with sight loss severe enough to affect their everyday lives [5]. By 2050, this number will double. In 2018, uncorrected or defective eyesight contributed to 196 crashes; 25% of these (53) led to serious injuries and three resulted in death [6].

However, it is often hard to tell if impaired vision was responsible for a crash. Some casualties probably happen because drivers do not know they have a vision problem, or have not reported it to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). This means poor vision is likely be massively underreported in government crash causation data.

Untreated eye conditions can occur gradually over time. Some of the most common conditions people may develop include long-sightedness or short-sightedness, but there are others, such as cataracts, macular degeneration and glaucoma, that can also impair their ability to perceive the road [7].

Legal framework

In the UK, drivers need to be able to read a modern car number plate from 20 metres away [8]. Drivers must inform the DVLA if their vision (with glasses or contact lenses if needed) is below 6/12 (0.5) on the Snellen scale, or their visual field is less than 1200, or they suffer from certain medical conditions [9].

Lorry and bus drivers are required to meet higher vision standards. They must have vision of at least 6/7.5 (0.8) in their best eye and at least 6/60 (0.1) in the other eye. If they require glasses or contact lenses, their corrective power must be no more than (+) 8 dioptres. Lorry and bus drivers must have a horizontal field of at least 70o left and right, and 30o up and down, with no visual defects within the central 30o [10].

Determining eyesight through the ‘number plate’ test is one aspect of the practical driving test, and may be conducted by the police at the roadside if they suspect an eyesight problem. This test is not required at any other time than these, so following the driving test, a driver may never be required to show any authority any evidence that their eyesight is acceptable for driving. Drivers older than 70 have to declare that their eyesight meets minimum standards when renewing their licence, but do not need to provide any evidence to the DVLA to prove this is so [11].

If the DVLA believes a driver may cause danger to the public because of their poor vision, their licence may be refused or revoked [12]. In 2019, 4,534 driving licences were revoked due to drivers having impaired vision [13].

Driver eyesight testing is not automatically carried out by police at the scene of a fatal or serious crash, although guidelines state that eye health should be ‘considered’ by the investigating officer [14]. Furthermore, it is not possible to test driver eyesight if a driver is dead or being treated for serious injuries, making it difficult to determine whether poor vision is a contributory factor in many cases. Even if the number plate test is carried out, its capability for assessing driver vision is limited. It only tests an individual’s vision over distance (visual acuity), and is not even a fully accurate and reliable evidence of that. The driving test does not assess visual field or sensitivity to contrast or glare, which can also have a significant impact on driver performance [15].

Police can urgently request that a driver’s licence be revoked if they believe the driver puts other road users at risk.

Brake is campaigning for the law on driver vision to be strengthened, to require drivers to prove to the DVLA they have had a recent, professional vision test when they take their driving test and be required to have regular tests during their driving life on a regular basis thereafter, and to prove their vision has recently been “passed to drive” through a vision test every 10 years when renewing their licence photocard.

Support Brake’s campaign for regular vision tests for all drivers and sign our Pledge to get your eyesight tested if you drive.

Eye testing

Experts recommend having a professional eye test at least every two years, or straight away if a problem arises [16].

A professional eye test checks vision over distance, as well as other visual defects, including problems seeing things in the central or peripheral vision. Visual field defects can be caused by illnesses such as glaucoma, retinal disease or cataracts.

Drivers with visual field defects experience twice as many road crashes and traffic violations compared to drivers with a full visual field, and almost half people with visual field loss are unaware of the problem [17]. But despite this, many drivers do not get their eyes tested regularly, or even at all.

A Brake survey in 2014 found one in four (25%) UK drivers hadn’t had a vision test in the past two years, and 4% (the equivalent of more than 1.5 million licence holders at the time [18]) had never had their eyes tested [19]. In a separate study by the College of Optometrists, one in 20 people aged above 40 said they had not been for a sight test for at least 10 years or could not recall when they last went [20].

There is evidence people do not get their eyes checked enough. A Brake survey found one in four (25%) UK drivers haven’t had a vision test in the past two years, and 4% (the equivalent of more than 1.5 million licence holders [17]) have never had their eyes tested [18]. In a separate study by the College of Optometrists, one in 20 people aged above 40 said they had not been for a sight test for at least 10 years or could not recall when they last went [19].

Going to the optician needn’t be expensive and may be free:

  • Eye sight tests are free in the UK if you are under 16, over 60, claiming certain benefits, or if you have certain medical conditions [21];
  • In Scotland, eyesight tests are free for everyone [22];
  • Employers who require their workers to regularly use computer screens for significant periods are obliged to pay for their eye tests on request, under the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 [23]
  • Employees who drive for work may also have arrangements in place with their employers for free or discounted eye tests.

For those who are not entitled to free tests, many high street opticians run promotions offering free or cheap tests.

Vision problems

Vision problems are common. It has been estimated that almost three quarters (74%) of the UK population either use glasses or contact lenses, or have had laser eye surgery to correct their vision [24]. Long- or short-sightedness are common conditions affecting eyesight in the UK, and can affect anyone at any age [25] [26].

Several health conditions can cause serious and sometimes permanent damage to eyesight. These conditions are more common in people aged over 50, but can affect younger people too.

Some of the most common conditions are listed below:

Cataract: This is when a clouding develops in the lens of the eye. Depending on its severity it can cause glare, short sightedness, double vision, and in severe cases, blindness. Cataracts are very common in older people: more than half of people aged 65 and over have some cataract development [27]. Often it is safe to drive with contacts and it is not a legal requirement to inform the DVLA if the driver meets the minimum standards for driving [28].

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD): A disease resulting in damage to the retina, causing loss of the centre of your vision. It can occur in one or both eyes. It is often possible to slow down AMD with medical treatment, so it is vital to have frequent eye tests to catch this disease in the early stages. AMD is the most common cause of poor sight in people over 60 [29].

Glaucoma: A condition that damages the optic nerve and causes complete blindness if left untreated. The most common form is chronic glaucoma, which develops slowly and painlessly, so the sufferer will not usually notice there is a problem until vision is significantly impaired. It is therefore vital to have frequent eye tests to catch this disease in the early stages. Acute glaucoma, where the condition comes on suddenly and painfully, leading sufferers to seek immediate treatment, is much less common. Glaucoma causes permanent damage, but if treated early enough, vision loss can be kept to a minimum. Glaucoma is very uncommon in people under 40 but becomes more common with increasing age [30]. Drivers with glaucoma must notify the DVLA and inform them of their condition.

Double vision (diplopia): A variety of underlying causes or conditions can cause a person to see two images of a single object either some or all of the time. It is usually possible to cure this condition with treatments ranging from eye exercises to surgery [32]. Drivers who develop diplopia must not drive and must immediately inform the DVLA [33].

Other health conditions and factors can affect eyesight, including [34]:

  • Diabetes: Sufferers are at higher risk of eyesight problems and in some cases it can lead to blindness, this should be reported to the DVLA;
  • Heart disease: Can lead to loss of vision, visual field defects, or double vision, drivers with these symptoms should inform the DVLA and avoid driving where possible;
  • Migraines: Can cause vision disturbances, including partial loss of vision, double vision, blurriness and seeing flashing lights;
  • Tiredness and some medication: These can cause eyesight to become blurred or otherwise poor; and
  • Ageing: Vision begins to deteriorate more rapidly at approximately 50 years of age, particularly night-time vision. [35]

Learn more: Visit the DVLA website for a full list of medical conditions that must be reported. 


End notes

[1] Pezzullo L. et al (2018), The economic impact of sight loss and blindness in the UK adult population, BMC Health Services Research, 18(63)

[2] DfT (2019), Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: 2018, Table RAS50001

[3] DVLA (2019), figures released to Motorway.co.uk

[4] Road Safety Observatory (2013), Eyesight and driving

[5] Pezzullo L. et al (2018), The economic impact of sight loss and blindness in the UK adult population, BMC Health Services Research, 18(63)

[6] DfT (2019), Reported road casualties in Great Britain, annual report: 2018, table RAS50001

[7] DVLA (2016, Assessment of fitness to drive: a guide for medical professionals

[8] Road Traffic Act (1988), gov.uk

[9] DVLA (2016), Driving eyesight rules

[10] Ibid

[11] Hansard (2011), Eyesight testing: parliamentary debate

[12] DVLA, Medical conditions, disabilities and driving

[13] DVLA (2019), figures released to Motorway.co.uk

[14] National Policing Improvement Agency (2007), Road Death Investigation Manual

[15] PACTS (2016), Fit to Drive

[16] NHS (2014), Vision and Hearing

[17] Archives of Ophthalmology (1983), Incidence of visual field loss in 20,000 eyes and its relationship to driving performance

[18] DfT (2016), Driving licence holding and vehicle availability

[19] Brake & Specsavers & RSA (2014), Driver eyesight survey

[20] College of Optometrists (2013), Britain’s eye health in focus

[21] NHS Choices (2016), Am I entitled to a free NHS eye test?

[22] Scottish Government, Your guide to free NHS eye examinations in Scotland

[23] Health and Safety Executive (2013), Working with display screen equipment

[24] College of Optometrists (2013), Britain’s eye health in focus

[25] NHS Choices (2015), Short sightedness (myopia)

[26] NHS Choices, 2016, Long sightedness

[27] NHS (2019), Age-related Cataracts

[28] DVLA (2016), Assessment of fitness to drive: a guide for medical professionals 

[29] NHS (2018), Age-Related Macular Degeneration

[30] NHS (2018), Glaucoma

[31] DVLA (2016), Assessment of fitness to drive: a guide for medical professionals

[32] NHS Choices (2014), Double vision

[33] DVLA (2016), Assessment of fitness to drive: a guide for medical professionals

[34] Ibid

[35] The Older drivers’ task-force (2016), Supporting safe driving into old age: a national older driver strategy

Page last updated: March 2020

Tags: vision sharp eyesight