Vision tests cut death rates for older drivers

By Anne Harding

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Instituting a law requiring drivers who are 80 years old or older to have their eyes checked reduced fatalities among these motorists, new research from Florida shows.

“Vision rescreening laws appear to be effective, but why they’re effective remains an unanswered question,” Dr. Gerald McGwin, Jr. of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the lead researcher on the study, told Reuters Health.

McGwin noted that there’s little scientific evidence to prove that drivers with bad eyesight are more likely to get in car crashes. He suggests that the Florida law likely improved safety not only by getting older drivers with poor vision off the road, but by removing drivers who were not well enough to cope with the “red tape” of getting their vision checked.

In January 2004, Florida began requiring people 80 or older who wanted to renew their license to either undergo a vision screening test or provide proof from a doctor or optometrist that they passed a vision screening test in the past year. To investigate the impact of the law, McGwin and his team compared fatality rates for all Florida drivers, as well as motorists 80 or older, between 2001and 2003 and 2004 and 2006.

From 2001 to 2006, the overall motor vehicle accident fatality rate rose, but the increase was not statistically significant. However, fatality rates among the oldest drivers declined significantly. When the two time periods were compared, the researchers found a 6 percent overall increase in death rates for automobile occupants of any age, while there was a 17 percent drop in mortality for drivers 80 or older.

In previous studies, McGwin and his team found that 88 percent of 80-plus Florida drivers passed their vision test, while more than three quarters of those who didn’t pass the first time around got treatment or glasses to improve their vision and were ultimately able to renew their licenses.

This meant 93.3 percent of older drivers who started the renewal process were able to obtain an updated license. However, they add, another study found that one in five Florida drivers 80 or older eligible to have their license renewed chose not to do so. “That may remove a fairly important group of people from the road,” McGwin said.

Balancing older people’s mobility needs with public safety is essential, the researcher added. “If the results of this study are replicated and these laws are effective,” he suggested, “perhaps they should be implemented with a parallel effort to improve any mobility or provide transportation alternatives for those who are impacted by such a law.”

SOURCE: Archives of Ophthalmology, November 2008.

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