Eye tests for drivers: Why aren’t employers legally obliged to provide them?

It may seem shocking that while there are regulations to protect the eyesight of staff using computer screens, there is no equivalent legislation covering the vision of people who drive as part of their work. After all, it is much more difficult to kill someone using a computer than an articulated lorry.

The latest government figures, published in November 2006, suggest that one-quarter of the 54,935 road traffic accidents in 2005 – the equivalent of 151 a day – involved vehicles being driven for work-related reasons.

It is impossible to say what proportion of accidents were caused by poor vision, but research by DrivingServices UK for optical chain Specsavers suggests that it could be worryingly high.

Ninety per cent of respondents to the survey said their employers did not insist on them having their eyes tested, more than half had not had an eye test in the past year, and one in five had not had a test in five years.

Three out of five workers surveyed support new laws to make eye tests compulsory, and 94% support legislation to promote safer eyesight standards regarding driving.Perhaps most worryingly of all, 6% said they had experienced an accident or near collision caused by poor eyesight, and 8% said they struggled to see in the dark.

The law

The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 requires that employers give free eye tests to employees who use display screen equipment if they ask for them.

There is no evidence to suggest that using display screens can cause permanent damage eyesight, although it may exacerbate existing conditions and cause visual fatigue and headaches. Yet a driver with poor eyesight presents a very serious risk to health and safety, both to themselves and to the public.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of all employees while at work. For staff who drive, this means monitoring all aspects of their vehicle and driver care, from routes to vision.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to manage health and safety effectively, and carry out an assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees while they are at work, and to other people who may be affected by their work activities.

Setting standards

In February 2003, the Department of Transport and the Health and Safety Executive published Driving at Work, providing guidelines for employers that manage staff who drive in the course of their work. At the very minimum, it stipulates that staff who drive for work must be able to satisfy the eyesight requirements set out in the Highway Code, which is being able to read a number plate at a distance of 20.5 metres.

Adrian Taylor, former director of corporate healthcare at Specsavers, points out that in the rail industry, the Railway Group Standards lay down minimum standards on near and distance vision – with spectacles or contact lenses, if worn – to all those working on the Network Rail structure. Train companies have eye-testing procedures in place, pay for glasses for drivers, and require drivers to have a second pair available for emergencies. Yet there is no equivalent body for those who drive motor vehicles as part of their job.

Employer responsibility

Taylor argues that employers should conduct a regular full test of the health and function of the eyes, and be responsible for ensuring that any necessary sight correction is provided. The number plate test is inadequate as it does not screen drivers for conditions such as glaucoma, which can lead to loss of peripheral vision.

The responsibility for taking an eye test should not be left to the individual, Taylor says. He proposes that the government should introduce new regulations for drivers – comparable to the display screen equipment regulations – for employers whose staff drive for work.

The key barrier, especially for owners of large fleets, is the cost they would incur in testing all staff. However, what they would gain in terms of lower insurance premiums, less time lost to accidents, and a reduction in the risk to corporate reputation, would make the investment more than worth it.

People can see distant objects clearly but have difficulty seeing near objects. About one-quarter of the population is affected, and the disorder is age-related.

People cannot see distant objects clearly but have no problems seeing near objects. It affects one-third of the UK population, and about 5% of those have high-degree myopia.

The optic nerve is damaged due to raised pressure inside the eye. This affects about 2% of people over the age of 40, and becomes more common with increasing age. This condition can lead to blindness, unless it is detected and treated early.

Colour blindness
Red/green colour blindness accounts for about 99% of colour blindness cases, and is more common in men than women. It is no bar to getting a driving licence.

Depth perception
This refers to the ability of a person to see in three dimensions. A person with loss of depth perception is not fit to drive and cannot have a driving licence.

Here the eye lens becomes rigid so that it can no longer focus effectively.

This can affect the eyes in a number of ways, such as causing the early onset of cataracts. A diabetic person may hold a driving licence.

Source: Sunil Shah, optical surgeon

Get your drivers’ eyes tested

Personnel Today has teamed up with its sister titles Occupational Health, Optician and Commercial Motor, to increase awareness of the need for more legislation on eye testing for staff who drive for work.

Louise Cole, deputy editor of Commercial Motor, says: “Good vision is such an important safety consideration for all drivers that no employer who expects staff to drive in a professional capacity can afford to neglect regular eye tests. No-one would dream of putting an unqualified driver behind the wheel – and yet a driver whose poor sight is uncorrected may be just as dangerous.”

This month in Occupational Health, you can get a free poster to help you manage the risk of employees who drive as part of their job.

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