Driving with poor eyesight: a safety guide for drivers who need to wear glasses or contact lenses
Safety should always be the number-one priority when driving – and that includes making sure your eyesight meets the legal requirements. Think about it; sight is relied on much more so than any of the five senses while driving. In fact, research shows that more than 90% of the information we take in when we’re driving comes from vision.
Lacking proper knowledge of how poor eyesight affects our vision while sitting in the driver's seat with bad eyesight can put ourselves and others at risk. You may fail to see traffic, read signs, and spot hazards on the roads ahead. As a matter of fact, reports show that on average, poor eyesight causes over 2,900 road casualties every year in the UK. And it’s also estimated that there are over 1.8 million active drivers on UK roads who do not meet the current minimum eyesight standards.
With driving and poor eyesight being such a risky combination, we’ve put together a guide for anyone who wears glasses or contacts. Ultimately, you have a responsibility to take good care of your eyesight and make sure you’re driving legally, and this includes attending regular eye tests and informing the DVLA of any problems.
Driving with poor eyesight
Before we get into some advice for staying safe on the roads, let’s take a closer look at the rules currently in place in the UK, including the minimum eyesight standards everyone must meet to be behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Driving eyesight requirements in the UK
The DVLA is the governmental body that issues driving licences. They also set the legal standards for efficient eyesight while driving a vehicle. According to the current driving eyesight rules in place by the DVLA, you must meet the following requirements:
- Be able to read a car registration plate from a minimum of 20 metres away (the type found on cars from September 2001 onwards)
- Have a visual acuity of at least decimal 0.5 (6/12) on the Snellen scale
- Have an adequate field of vision (the ability to see hazards in your peripheral vision)
All of these standards can be met with or without the aid of glasses or contacts, and using both eyes, or one eye only.
Lorry and bus driver eyesight requirements
The minimum standards are higher for lorry and bus drivers. They need to meet the following standards of vision:
- Have a minimum visual acuity of 0.8 (6/7.5) in their best eye and at least 0.1 (6/60) in the other
- Have a minimum uninterrupted horizontal field of 160º (with a minimum extension of 70º for left and right and 30º up and down)
- Use of standard glasses must have a maximum corrective power of +8 dioptres (there is no limit for contact lenses)
Other things to note
- An optician can carry out tests that examine all three of the DVLA’s eyesight rules
- When renewing their licence, drivers aged 70 or over need to declare that their eyesight meets the minimum legal standards. Anyone aged over 60 can get an NHS eye test free of charge
- Learner drivers will be asked to read a car registration plate at the start of your practical driving test
The dangers of driving with poor eyesight
So why does the failure to meet these minimum eyesight standards pose such a risk to those on the road? What are the dangers? Here are three key reasons why getting a regular eye test is so important for road safety.
1. Lack of hazard perception
Visual observation is key when driving. Without good eyesight, there’s an increased risk of failing to spot hazards and therefore reacting quickly enough to them. This is especially true for those with bad peripheral vision – you might miss pedestrians crossing the street or cars and cyclists turning onto the road.
2. Further impaired visibility at night
Poor eyesight becomes even worse at night. Even drivers with good eyesight have impaired vision once the sun goes down. In the darkness, drivers with poor eyesight might strain harder and must concentrate more to see road signs and may also experience blurred vision and glare from headlights.
3. Dangers in road surfaces
It’s not just pedestrians and other road uses that pose a danger - other hazards on the road include obstructing objects and damage to road quality such as debris, black ice, uneven surfaces, and potholes. In fact, a total of 1.5 million potholes were reported to local UK councils between April 2018 and June 2021.
Don’t break the law
Data collected from The College of Optometrists shows that nearly half of UK drivers purposefully choose to not wear their glasses or contact lenses because they either feel like they don’t need them, can’t find them, or simply forget. That’s nearly half of drivers with poor eyesight putting themselves and others in serious danger.
With these concerning figures in mind, we want to make you aware that doing so is illegal. Anyone caught driving without their prescription glasses or contact lenses faces a hefty fine of £1,000, three penalty points on their licence, and potential disqualification from driving.
You can also be fined up to £1,000 if you do not inform the DVLA about a certain medical condition that affects your ability to drive safely. You could even face criminal charges if you are involved in a serious accident as a result of the impairment.
Causes of poor eyesight
Poor eyesight can be genetic. However, sometimes poor vision is a symptom of a more serious underlying medical condition. Here are some of the other most common reasons for poor eyesight, including a range of vision problems that may cause you to fall under the minimum eyesight standard for driving.
Myopia and hyperopia
These are two of the most common causes of poor vision, also known as short-sightedness and long-sightedness respectively. Myopia (short-sightedness) makes it difficult to see objects in the far distance, whereas hyperopia (long-sightedness) makes it difficult to see objects up close. Both conditions are predominantly hereditary and impair your ability to see things correctly.
The loss of one-half of your visual field. Hemianopia is most commonly caused by serious damage to the brain, usually from a stroke, brain tumour, or trauma. The scope of the visual field loss can vary depending on the severity of the brain injury, but it usually involves loss on the same side in both eyes – left or right.
Quadrantanopia is a very similar condition, except the loss covers one-quarter of your visual field.
A condition that affects your eyesight from cloudy patches developing over the small transparent disc inside your eye is known as cataracts. This condition is predominantly age-related, with the patches becoming bigger and more cloudy over time, causing blurry vision and sometimes eventually blindness.
Age and vision
Eyesight generally deteriorates with age. As we get older, most of us will notice changes in our vision, including the inability to see up close, having difficulty seeing colours, and finding it hard to adjust to bright lights. In addition to general ageing, more serious age-related vision problems include:
- Age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which affects the sharpness of our central vision, causing blurriness when doing things like reading or driving.
- Diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes caused by damage to the back of the eye. It can lead to severe vision loss and blindness.
- Glaucoma, caused by a build of fluid inside the eye that damages the optic nerve. Although it’s a relatively common condition, glaucoma can lead to blindness if left untreated.
Staying safe when driving
Now that we’ve explained what causes poor eyesight and the consequences you might face if you drive without the appropriate eyewear, let’s turn our attention to what you can do to minimise the risks of dangerous driving, including getting the right glasses or contacts to wear.
It all starts with getting tested, especially if you already wear glasses and have not been tested for a while – or have never been tested before at all. 59% of people in the UK wear corrective eyewear and approximately 2.28 million people are classified as having moderate-severe vision loss, so getting tested should be a regular check-up.
When was the last time you were tested for your eyesight? Research shows that people aren’t visiting an optometrist as often as they should. In fact, 5% percent of people over the age of 40 admitted they haven’t had their eyes tested for over a decade, and less than 50% of adults wouldn’t actively turn to the help of an optometrist to find the cause of their eye problem.
That makes thousands of us not utilising the assistance of optometrists (those who are considered to be the UK’s frontline eyecare professionals).
How to book an eye test
Roshni Kanabar, an optometrist for the Association of Optometrists, urges everyone to get tested regularly in order to stay safe on the roads. She said, “If you’re finding it hard to see when driving, your first port of call should be your optometrist, so they can investigate what might be causing your issues and recommend solutions to make you comfortable and safe.”
So how do you book an eye test to find the solution you need? Well, the good news is the NHS offers free eye tests to a few different people, including anyone who is:
- Under the age of 16
- Over the age of 60
- In full-time education
- Registered blind or partially-sighted
- Diagnosed with diabetes
- Diagnosed with glaucoma
- A prisoner or have recently left prison
- On some form of government income support
Find out if you’re entitled to free eye tests on the NHS website.
If you don’t qualify for NHS eye tests, rest assured there are plenty of other options out there. Prices will vary across the most popular high street opticians, but they should usually be no more than £30 per test. You might even come across free eye tests or discounted offers if you look in the right places.
The NHS also offers optical vouchers to reduce the price of glasses and contact lenses. Plus, if you’ve already paid for a test and think you might qualify, you may be able to claim back the full cost – just make sure you keep your receipt handy.
Tips for drivers
1. Keep a spare pair of glasses in the car
With so many of us forgetting to bring our glasses with us when we leave the house, it’s always best to leave a spare pair in the car, just in case.
2. Invest in prescription sunglasses
Did you know it’s illegal to drive in certain types of sunglasses? Take a read of the AA’s guide on driving with sunglasses.
Prescription sunglasses combine vital UV protection from the sun’s glare with corrective varifocal lenses. They’re the ideal solution for reducing eye strain and squinting when you’re driving on a particularly sunny day. Just be sure to keep them close all year round – the sun comes out in winter, too.
3. Avoid driving at night
Like we’ve already mentioned, driving in the dark is extra risky for drivers with poor eyesight, so avoid driving at night wherever possible, especially if you’re someone whose vision is particularly impaired in dark light.
4. Beware of visually-impairing medication
Some medications are known to affect visual acuity, including a variety of anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, and corticoids such as ibuprofen, isotretinoin, amiodarone, and chlorpromazine. Take extra caution if you are taking these types of drugs as medication. They may cause drowsiness and blurred or double vision.
5. Look after your glasses and contacts
Keeping your glasses and contacts in good condition is vital for safe driving. Regularly clean and wipe them to ensure there are no visual obstructions like smudges or marks – even the smallest flecks of dirt can impair your vision. Check out this guide on how to clean glasses and sunglasses properly.
6. Plan your routes beforehand
Knowing directions like the back of your hand can help you stay safer while on route. The less you need to concentrate on navigation and reading road signs, the more you can concentrate on what traffic is ahead and the hazards that are about.
7. Take regular breaks
Eyes can get tired too, which can affect your vision and reaction time, especially if you’re driving long distances. Make sure you take a well-deserved break at least once every two hours to refresh your eyes and keep you vigilant.
Using eye drops can also hydrate the eyes to improve vision.
Frequently asked questions
Let’s finish up our safety guide with some common questions regarding driving and poor eyesight. Remember, if you’re still unsure about anything, the best person to seek advice from is your optometrist.
Are there restrictions for colour-blind drivers?
No. There are currently no restrictions for people with any type of colour blindness. However, optometrists highly recommend that those who are colour-blind take careful precautions – especially when learning certain aspects of driving theory and The Highway Code.
For example, remember that red is at the top light of the traffic light system, and green at the bottom. You should also learn what the shapes of each road sign mean, eg. red triangular signs are warnings, while red circular signs are orders.
How often should you visit your opticians for an eye test?
Experts recommend you book yourself in for an eye test at least every two years. However, you should take tests more regularly if you have an existing eyesight condition. Be sure to book a test if you notice any changes at all in your vision.
Are there restrictions for drivers with one eye?
You can legally drive with just one eye (AKA monocular vision). However, all drivers of commercial vehicles (ie. bus and lorry drivers) will need to pass the visual field and visual acuity tests to obtain a commercial driving licence.
Are there restrictions for drivers with tunnel vision?
You can legally drive with tunnel vision. However, you’ll need to prove you have a minimum of 120º vision spanning your focal viewpoint.
What other factors can affect your vision when driving?
Age, light levels, the speed you are driving, and your emotional state are all considered significant factors that can affect your vision when driving, even if you have 20/20 vision (so-called ‘perfect’ vision).
Driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol can also significantly affect your vision and reaction time. If you are caught driving or attempting to drive while under the influence, you may get up to six months imprisonment, an unlimited fine, and a driving ban.
What should you do if you fail your eye test?
If your eye test reveals you do not meet the minimum standard of eyesight, it’s your duty to inform the DVLA. Failure to do so can result in a £1,000 fine.
Drivers who wear glasses or contacts need to pay special attention to their vision. In particular, they should attend regular eye tests to ensure they are meeting the UK’s legal requirements for eyesight. The DVLA has set minimum standards that everyone must meet.
Failure to meet these standards poses a real danger to both yourself and others when on the road, so it is vital that drivers with poor eyesight take responsibility and make conscious steps toward driving safely every time they get behind the wheel. This includes things like; always making sure there is a spare pair of glasses kept in your car and investing in the right eyewear for your individual correction prescription.