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June 29, 2008

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Driver eyecare – driving safey

Many employers should be doing more to ensure their corporate policies regarding drivers’ eyecare are up to scratch, argues Mark Raines.

On average, every two minutes someone, somewhere in the country, becomes a road-accident casualty. This is based on statistics for 2005, the last year for which figures are available, when 271,000 people were injured on Britain’s roads.

Of this toll, 3201 were killed — about one person every three hours — and between a quarter and a third of these deaths occurred during work-related journeys.1 It is impossible to say how many deaths are caused specifically by drivers’ poor eyesight, but when you consider research revealing that one in four motorists have a level of eyesight below the legal standard for driving, the toll must be high.2

Forgive the pun, but there is more to vision and driving than meets the eye. Health and safety managers should possess a good grasp of the legal statutes in place to protect road users, and familiarise themselves with the best available advice. However, while many large organisations provide support for their office staff in the form of free eye tests and vouchers for glasses if they need them, they offer next to nothing for their drivers. Indeed, an executive from one major British firm employing 2000 drivers told me that as long as their employee had a driving licence, it made no further checks about the condition of their eyesight. The policy, or lack of one, took no account of the huge changes that could have taken place and affected the vision of a middle-aged driver who might have passed their test as a teenager.

Strict criteria

By contrast, there are other organisations that are scrupulous in monitoring the state of their drivers’ eyesight. The Metropolitan Police, for example, employs about 7000 people for whom driving is a major part of their job, and it has systems in place to ensure that every one of them meets strict criteria. A spokesperson for the Met says: “The Metropolitan Police takes the issue of drivers’ eyesight very seriously. We use appropriate screening, up-to-date guidance, and specialist external support as necessary for all our drivers, which assists in ensuring the safety of our officers, staff, and the communities we serve.”

Every Met driver must meet specific visual acuity requirements — in layman’s terms, how clearly they can see — before they are even employed. There are minimum standards in place for every driver’s visual ability, and once they begin their employment, they are assessed every three years by an adjudicator from outside the Met, using the Snellen eyesight-screening process — a letter chart that will be familiar to anyone who has been to an optician. The assessor can insist that a Met driver has more frequent eye tests, if they consider the officer might need these for medical reasons. If a Met officer fails to meet the vision requirements for driving, they are immediately referred to the constabulary’s occupational health department for further assessment.

The Met goes further by providing a free pair of glasses for all uniformed officers who need them, irrespective of their duties. This benefit applies to any prescription: single-vision lenses for distance, reading glasses, bifocals, or varifocals. Officers may choose frames from an approved range of patterns. Sunglasses are not included as part of the offer; however, drivers are allowed to wear their own as long as they conform to Met specifications.

One of the best ways to ensure that employees are fit to drive is to make sure they have their eyes tested regularly, preferably every couple of years. That is because everybody’s eyesight tends to worsen over time, and lifestyle changes can affect it adversely. A condition called presbyopia affects people over 40 especially, making the lens of the eye less flexible and less able to focus. Only regular eye examinations can track the condition, and enable an appropriate prescription for glasses or contact lenses that will correct a driver’s vision.

Is the law adequate?

Despite the evidence that millions of older motorists take to the road with sub-standard sight, there appears to be little appetite in government to toughen up the law by insisting on regular re-testing of drivers’ eyesight.

Indeed, the Department for Transport conducted a study on the ages of motorists involved in accidents, and concluded that older drivers were safer on the roads than their younger counterparts, even though their vision was likely to be worse. It concluded that it would be unfair to disqualify older, safer drivers on the basis of their eyesight alone. The report said: “No single test, or combination of tests, has been shown to be able to effectively screen out those at risk of accidents without also leading to the disqualification of a substantial number of potentially safe drivers. Thus, no change in the present visual requirements is recommended at the present time.”3

Reporting duties

It is a little-known fact among motorists that some eye conditions must be reported to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). These include cataracts, glaucoma and double vision. If a company driver suffers from one of these ailments, and the DVLA is not informed, then the firm’s motor insurance could be invalid if that driver is involved in a road accident. That is quite apart from the risk the driver creates for themselves and other road users if they get behind the wheel with impaired vision.

It sounds obvious, but if drivers wear glasses in everyday life, they must always wear them when they are on the road. Yet, astonishingly, a recent survey revealed that one in nine drivers in the UK takes a chance by not wearing their spectacles while driving.2 They either forget them, are too casual about wearing them, or take a chance by wearing non-prescription glasses instead. At busy times there are as many as 18 million vehicles on Britain’s roads,4 and it is a frightening thought that perhaps as many as 2 million of these could be driven by people who can’t see properly.

Legally, drivers should be able to read a car number-plate from 20.5m — about the length of a cricket pitch. This is hardly a demanding test, and, when you consider that it was framed in 1935, in an era when the volume and speed of traffic on our roads were rather different from today, you might wonder if it is a little out-dated. If your drivers cannot meet this standard, they are breaking the law and they should not be on the road. To re-emphasise the point, only regular eye examinations will make sure they can still see well enough to satisfy the law.

Other driving risks

One of the messages regularly hammered home on Britain’s motorways, via roadside matrices and billboards at service stations, is the importance of taking regular breaks. Driving for long distances can be as wearing on the eyes as it is on the brain, and drivers should stop for at least a 15-minute break every two hours.5

Health and safety managers should also take special care if their drivers work at night. There are hazards connected with driving after dark, which might not always be apparent. For instance, it is unsafe to drive at night wearing glasses with yellow tinted lenses; they make shadows darker, and it is more difficult for drivers to spot pedestrians and cyclists. Similarly, sunglasses should never be worn at night.

Special, polarising lenses are available, which reduce glare — the cause of countless road accidents — while anti-reflective coatings on spectacle lenses cut down distracting headlight reflections, and will give drivers clearer vision in poor light. In every case, it is a good idea for drivers to take advice from their optician about the best options for driving.

Another good tip for occupational drivers is always to carry a spare pair of spectacles in the glovebox — especially if they are working abroad. It will save them and their cargo being stranded if they lose or break their glasses. In some countries, this is a legal requirement.

Education is key

Finally, health and safety managers could help their drivers make our roads safer for everyone by heeding the advice of the Department for Transport. Despite concluding in its report3 that legislation was too blunt an instrument to promote an improvement in drivers’ vision, it did insist that education was key.

“There is a possible case for improved publicity and information emphasising the continuing legal requirement for good vision, and the associated need both for self-checking by the number-plate test and for clinical eye examinations at regular intervals, particularly for older drivers,” it said.

“The need to always wear any prescribed distance prescription while driving, and the desirability of keeping a spare pair of spectacles in the vehicle, could also be stressed. Such educational material could be distributed at the same time as reminders for vehicle licences.”

As the basis for a corporate policy on drivers’ eyecare, this is simple, concise and clear-sighted.


1 Department for Transport (2006): Road casualties Great Britain 2005.

2 The Specsavers’ Drivesafe Roadshow questioned 500 drivers, and screened their vision at the 2008 Vitality Show, Olympia, London

3 Department for Transport (2000): Vision and driving report (No. 02), RAC Press Office.

5 Department for Transport, Think Road Safety.


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