How vision can impact your ability to drive
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Whether you drive for pleasure, work or out of necessity, having good vision is crucial. While some people are born with vision problems, others develop vision issues as they age. If you have poor vision or a health condition that impairs your vision, it can negatively impact your ability to drive safely. Knowing the signs of potential vision problems, what can happen if you get in an accident because of poor vision and how to improve your vision before it gets worse can help you maintain confidence and stay safe behind the wheel.
- As many as 3% of drivers are estimated to have below minimum standard vision (NVision)
- Though 80% of vision impairments can be resolved by wearing prescription contacts or glasses, almost one in four people drive with poor vision (ASBA)
- An estimated 8.2 million people in the U.S. have vision impairment (near/farsightedness, astigmatism, presbyopia), which is expected to double by 2050 (CDC)
- Night driving is the most dangerous, especially for drivers with poor night vision, with the most fatal crashes happening after sunset and peaking on Saturday night (National Safety Council)
- Forty-three states have separate vision requirements at renewal for the general and older populations due to the chance of increased vision problems (IIHS)
Your vision’s impact on driving
Your field of vision and visual acuity, or visual clarity, are essential factors in driving safely. To a lesser extent, color vision and contrast sensitivity are also needed to obey traffic lights and see road signs, signals and pedestrians during various times of day and weather conditions. Certain vision problems can reduce visual acuity, making it more difficult to clearly see other vehicles, signs, potential hazards and traffic lights.
Common vision ailments
Each type of vision problem can affect driving differently. While some are more common and easily corrected, others are less common and may require more extensive and costly measures to improve your vision so you can drive safely.
- Computer vision syndrome: CVS can also be called digital eyestrain and is most prevalent in digital users with uncorrected vision problems. Up to 90% of people who work regularly using computer screens can have symptoms, including blurry vision, dry eyes, headaches and shoulder or neck pain. Left unchecked and treated, computer vision syndrome can impair your vision while driving, increasing your chances of an accident or ticketable offense.
- Near/farsightedness: Nearsightedness, or myopia, is when you have trouble seeing far away, while farsightedness, or hyperopia, is when it is difficult to see close objects. Though almost 40% of the population is myopic, hyperopia is much less common, affecting only 8.4 percent. Both can blur your vision and impair your driving, which can usually be resolved by wearing corrective lenses, contacts or having surgery to improve your visual acuity.
- Astigmatism: An astigmatism is a cornea or lens curvature imperfection, causing the eye to be oval-shaped rather than round. It can also be accompanied by myopia or hyperopia. Astigmatism can cause blurry vision or squinting to see better, which can increase the risk of driver error. Affecting one in three people, it can be corrected with glasses, contacts or surgery.
- Color blindness: This vision defect makes it hard to see the colors red and green. It affects about 5% of women and 8% of men of Northern European descent. Color blindness can make it difficult to see traffic lights and colored road signs when driving.
- Glaucoma: This eye disease causes damage to the optic nerve and can cause blindness if left untreated. Over 3 million Americans have it and about half do not know it, as early stages cause no symptoms. Blind spots can occur as it progresses, severely limiting the ability to drive safely.
- Cataracts: When the natural internal lens gets progressively cloudy, it can cause glare, light halos and blurred vision. Cataracts can make it difficult to drive in low light, bad weather conditions and at night. They are mostly age-related, with more than half of 80-year-olds having cataracts or had surgery to correct them.
- Strabismus: This eye condition is commonly called crossed eyes and is when the eyes are misaligned. Strabismus affects roughly 4% of the population and can happen at any age, with adults typically having underlying health issues. It can cause double vision, affecting your ability to drive safely, especially in busy areas.
- Macular degeneration: The macula, part of the retina, can get damaged, causing central vision loss. Macular degeneration mainly affects those 65 and older, causing color loss, blurred vision and the inability to see people, signs and road markers.
Driving at night
Nighttime is the most dangerous time to drive. The hours after sunset are when most fatal accidents occur, according to the National Safety Council. Friday through Sunday have the highest instances of crashes, with Saturday as the peak.
- Additional challenges arise at night: Night driving can bring added challenges, including more animals near the road, poor lighting, bright headlights and more people on the road
- Night blindness: Also called nyctalopia, night blindness occurs in people with myopia, retinal disease or other optical conditions. If you have trouble seeing and trip over things in low light, it can make it difficult to see signs, people, animals and road markers.
- Halo and glare: Seeing halos or glare around headlights and other lights could be a sign of glaucoma, cataracts, astigmatism and other eye conditions. It can affect how clearly you can see while driving at night, increasing your chances of an accident.
- Limited depth perception: Nighttime driving can limit how far you can see, as well as your peripheral and color vision, causing an inability to gauge how far away something is from you or around you while driving.
Vision requirements for driving
Driving is a privilege, and in order to maintain that privilege, you must complete and pass various tests, including one for vision. To maintain your license, you also have to adhere to laws or risk losing your driving privileges.
All states plus the District of Columbia have vision tests requirements, though they vary by state. While none require 20/20, or “perfect” vision, most require at least 20/40, with Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wyoming only requiring 20/100 in both eyes. Only commercial driver’s licenses have a standardized vision requirement, which is set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
States use the Snellen eye chart to test visual acuity and may require a visual field test to judge your peripheral vision and color blindness test. You can wear glasses or contacts to take the vision test, but they will place a restriction on your license requiring you to wear corrective lenses while driving.
If you fail the vision test, the corrective action depends on your situation. You may have to:
- Get a form completed by an eye doctor
- Wear corrective lenses
- Get a shorter license term
- Be restricted on when and where you can drive
Like vision test requirements, vision laws vary by state. Seven states have no proof of adequate vision requirement for renewals:
- Oregon (except 50+ renewing in person)
In the remaining states, proof is needed at each renewal, when renewing in person or only after a certain age. License renewal cycles also vary, with states like Vermont requiring every other year by mail up to 12 years in Arizona and Montana.
Vision testing results can cause license restrictions, including requiring corrective lenses, driving only during the day, inability to drive on highways and placing more mirrors on the vehicle. These laws also vary by state and testing parameters.
Insurance and accidents due to vision
Vision is the most important sense you need to drive. If you lack visual acuity, field of vision, ability to see red and green, peripheral vision or depth perception, you are at greater risk of causing an accident. When an accident occurs that your vision causes, it can complicate whether your insurance company will cover it.
If you cause an accident because of driving in a poorly lit area, daytime glare or impairment from weather, it should be covered. However, intentionally causing an accident is usually not covered. Also, if you have a corrective lens restriction on your driver’s license but fail to wear your contacts or glasses, your insurance company might not cover the accident.
When does poor vision become a problem?
Not all vision problems are cause for concern when driving. Some, like near/farsightedness, can be corrected with glasses, contacts or corrective eye surgery. Others, however, can signal a problem when they pose an increased risk of accidents.
Blurry vision can make it harder to perceive depth and road markers, for instance. Not being able to see objects, people or animals because they no longer stand out from the background is a sign of poor contrast sensitivity. Color blindness or cataracts may cause the inability to distinguish between red and green. A limited field of vision, whether peripheral or central, can cause you to misjudge distance or speed of another vehicle, or be unable to see a pedestrian crossing the street.
What can be done to help improve vision?
If you have poor vision or a condition affecting your eyesight, you can take certain measures to improve your vision.
- Regular eye exams: With good vision, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends an exam once during your 20s and twice in your 30s. If you notice a change in your vision, like blurriness, floaters or eye pain, schedule an exam. A complete exam at 40 can screen for early signs of eye diseases.
- Glasses: If you wear contacts or glasses, you should get checked annually by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. This annual eye exam can test for changes in your vision and make adjustments to your prescription, so you continue to see clearly while driving and performing other activities.
- LASIK: A refractive eye surgery like LASIK can correct myopia, hyperopia and astigmatism. It eliminates the need to wear contacts and glasses. If you have this laser eye surgery, you can request to have a corrective lens restriction removed from your driver’s license.
- Cataract surgery: To improve your driving and other daily activities, your doctor may recommend cataract surgery. The surgeon removes the cloudy lens and replaces it with an artificial lens in about an hour. This painless surgery corrects the vision of 90% of patients, allowing them to see clearly and drive safely.
- Limited screen time: To prevent CVS, dry eye and eyestrain, limiting screen time can prevent vision problems. Put devices away at least an hour before bed, use a matte filter to eliminate glare, maintain an arm’s length distance from the screen and adjust the lighting to limit eye strain. Using the 20-20-20 rule, take a 20-minute break by focusing on an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds to allow your eyes time to relax.
- Sunglasses: Polarized sunglasses are a great way to reduce glare on sunny days and reduce eye strain so you can see more clearly. They also limit reflections and haze, which can also improve your vision when driving.
- Quit smoking/vaping: Smoking is a contributor to macular degeneration and cataracts. Quitting smoking now can prevent vision loss or blindness, which is twice as likely in smokers as nonsmokers.
- Key vitamins: Including several vitamins and nutrients in your diet can improve your vision and eye health. Vitamins A, C and E, Lutein, omega-3’s, gamma-linolenic acid and zinc work in various ways to optimize your vision.
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