Optometrists and road safety experts are divided over calls for roadside eyesight tests – and nationwide vision testing standards – as recent figures show drivers aged 65 and over represent 22 per cent of all Australian road fatalities.
Under new proposals from some optometrists, however, any driver could be obliged to undergo random roadside eyesight tests given vision impairment can affect people of all ages.
Although driver licences in most states nominate whether a driver should be wearing glasses – and police can check this during routine stops – there is no mechanism in place to catch people with failing eyesight, unless they need to re-sit a vision test after losing their licence, or allowing it to lapse.
Hobart-based optometrist Ben Armitage is leading the charge with his invention, Acuidrive – a mobile eye-testing device that can reveal whether a motorist is below the legal standard for vision.
"Unlike random breath tests for alcohol, there's currently no mechanism for people to get caught if they are driving with eyesight below the standard," Mr Armitage explained to CarAdvice.
"In a lot of states, having a conditional licence is a matter of self-declaration – otherwise you have your vision checked when you're 16 and getting your first licence and then the next time you're checked is in your 60s, 70s or 80s, depending on the state."
According to a Specsavers survey of 1000 drivers, "one in three people who are legally required to wear corrective eyewear admit to not wearing their glasses while on the open road; and one in four say they do this regularly".
Meanwhile, Optometry Australia's 2020 Vision Index found 20 per cent of Australians between the ages of 35 and 54 find it difficult to read road signs, 15 per cent of all Australians admit squinting to see while driving during the day and 59 per cent of all Australians are worried about the overall quality of their eyesight.
Above: Ben Armitage's Acuidrive mobile eye-testing device.
Mr Armitage's Acuidrive device – which he believes will deter people from driving without their mandated corrective lenses – essentially replicates a similar vision test to the one you'd normally undertake at an optometrist, but without the need for appointments, elaborate equipment or even an optometrist to be present.
"I wanted to come up with a way of enabling that check to happen on the roads, to push more people to wear their glasses to drive. I was able to, by using lenses, recreate a six-metre chart at what is essentially a 25cm distance, which allows anyone to use a handheld device to measure eyesight," he explained.
Mr Armitage says while more device testing needs to be carried out, he's managed to improve the Acuidrive device thanks to input from his police officer friends and is currently working on a second prototype.
"My goal over the next 12 months is to prove it works and get it doing what I designed it to do," Mr Armitage said.
"If you an average person can see a road sign at 250m away, somebody who is not meeting the legal driving standard won’t be able to see that sign until they are 100m away. It’s essentially equivalent of going 200km/h in a 110km/h zone because you don’t have as much time to react. It is a real problem."
What's the minimum vision requirement for driving in Australia?
In Australia, the minimum vision requirement for driving is the same as in the US, UK and Europe and is defined in metres: 6/12. Given "20/20 vision" refers to a measurement in feet, the Australian equivalent of 20/20 vision is 6/6 vision, and 6/12 is regarded as an adequate standard for driving.
If you're able to see 6/12 without glasses, then you won't require a conditional licence. If you're only able to see 6/12 or above with glasses, then the 'S' condition will be added to your licence. Generally speaking, to be able to drive, you should be able to read a normal car licence plate from about 20 metres away.
Sometimes, people who are outside the legal limit even with correctional lenses on will be permitted to drive, but only under certain conditions, for example, they can only drive during daylight hours, or within a specified radius of their home, but this is dependent on individual circumstances.
Do we need nationwide vision testing standards?
Ben Hamlyn, member support and policy advisor at Optometry Australia, says it's estimated 2-3 per cent of drivers are currently on the roads without sufficient vision to meet the criteria to drive, but more local research needs to be done to understand the extent of the issue.
One key concern is a lack of consistency across the states in the way driver eyesight is monitored and reported by both the drivers themselves and optometry professionals.
"There’s diversity across the country on exactly how vision standards are measured and implemented throughout a person’s life," Mr Hamlyn explained.
"In South Australia and the Northern Territory, optometrists are required to report people who are driving with inappropriate vision to the transport authorities. In other states its not mandatory but an optometrist can do it to promote road safety. Mandatory reporting makes it simpler for the practitioner because it removes the choice."
Another possible solution would be to mandate eye tests for licence renewal, or every 1-2 years age depending on age.
"It’s absolutely possible that people are unaware how poor their vision is as it often deteriorates slowly over many years," Mr Hamlyn said.
“Other conditions like glaucoma (an increase in pressure in the eye which affects the side or peripheral vision) are painless and over 150 000 Australians are estimated to be undiagnosed and suffering from this condition”.
"There are a couple of ages where vision is most likely to change – during the teen years, then after 50 other issues such as cataracts can come in. People are relatively stable between 25 and 50 but it’s important those people have other health checks.
"There will be people who may recognise their vision is not perfect but they’re not sure if it’s bad enough to stop them driving and, to be honest, the only way someone can find out is by seeing an optometrist."
What are police currently doing to combat poor vision on our roads?
But Scott Weber, CEO of Police Federation of Australia, said that throughout his multi-decade career the incidence of eyesight-related road accidents he'd encountered was virtually non-existent.
"I’ve never been to an accident where that’s the cause," Mr Weber said. "People have been blinded by the sun or have claimed the 'rain is too heavy' but eyesight is not something that's really come up."
Mr Weber said it is already common police practice when pulling people over for breath tests or driving offences to check whether they were obeying the conditions of their licence.
"If we pull them over for RBT and their licence is conditional, we check they’re wearing glasses or contacts and issue them with a ticket if not," he said.
Asked whether a device like Acuidrive would be a help or a hindrance, Mr Weber said: "We've got heaps of devices already... If we wanted to check their eyesight, we can just hold up our notebook and say 'what’s this say?'."
The penalties for driving in breach of licence condition S (visual aids required) vary from state to state. In Queensland, for example, it's a $144 fine, while in Victoria it can be up to 10 penalty units, equating to $1611 in fines.
What does it mean for road safety?
Russell White, founder of the Australian Road Safety Foundation, says vision is a critical predictor of a how a driver performs on the road.
"From my experience training drivers since the early 90s, the one thing I find that is most crucial in terms of ability is how people use their eyes while they drive," Mr White told CarAdvice.
"In my view, vision and eyesight are the most critical things when it comes to how a driver is performing. If someone’s vision isn’t up to the case, then that can be a compounding problem on top of other issues."
The question is, Mr White says, whether you try to intervene before people are on the roads, or apprehend them after they're behind the wheel.
"Being able to test people's vision on the roadside has merit, but are we getting to it too late?" Mr White said.
"We need to look at the licencing system. There's no one single answer, but telling people to look further down the road when they drive is a simple safety message we can share."
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