No vision test needed to renew driver's license
By Laurel Black
The Paducah Sun
It's unlikely a person's vision will be as accurate at 60 as it is at 16, but the state of Kentucky doesn't consider that when renewing residents' driver's licenses.
Kentucky requires a vision exam for drivers in three cases: when a person first applies for a permit, when he or she is transferring from another state with an expired license, or when the driver is transferring from another country, according to Ryan Watts, executive director of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
"Kentucky does not have any requirements to retest vision due to hitting an age milestone," he said.
The fatal accident last fall that claimed the life of former McCracken County Judge-Executive Van Newberry has drawn local attention to the lack of a vision exam requirement.
Kentucky is one of only eight states that do not require re-testing for license renewal at any age. The others are Alabama, Connecticut, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Vermont.
McCracken County Sheriff Jon Hayden said his department encounters at least a dozen drivers a year who exhibit an obvious physical impairment to driving safely.
"I think there should be some requirement," Hayden said. "It's a public safety issue, clearly."
The McCracken County Sheriff's Office found "severe visual impairment" when detectives examined the medical records of 68-year-old Willie Holsapple, who was indicted this month on second-degree manslaughter charges in Newberry's death. Newberry was riding a bicycle when authorities say Holsapple's vehicle hit him.
"From these records, it was very clear that (Holsapple) was not safe to be operating a vehicle and had been advised as such," Hayden said.
Law enforcement officers and doctors can send an affidavit to the state's medical review board requesting that a driver be evaluated and re-tested. Sometimes, family members of potentially dangerous drivers will request this themselves, if they are unable to keep a loved one from driving. But Hayden's office rarely hears the results of these requests -- possibly due to laws protecting patient privacy, he said.
A report of an unsafe driver could lead to these individuals being "flagged" when they attempt to renew their licenses, according to Paducah Circuit Court Clerk Kim Channell. Drivers can also voluntarily surrender their license. Neither scenario happens often, Channell said.
Beyond that, little can be done. Many adults may start having vision problems in their early- to mid-40s, according to the American Optometric Association.
The Kentucky Optometric Organization, which represents about 80 percent of Kentucky's practicing optometrists, agrees the state's requirements need to change.
"I absolutely believe this is a problem," Julie Gibson, a Paducah optometrist and member of the Kentucky Optometric Association, said. "I've actually not allowed patients to leave my office driving because they did not meet the criteria for a Kentucky driver's license."
In neighboring Missouri, a visual exam is required each time a driver renews his license, said Michelle Gleba, director of communications for the Missouri Department of Revenue.
Illinois also requires a vision screening when applying for a renewal, except for those who are eligible, due to a clean driving record, for a Safe Driver Renewal. People 75 or older take a driving test at each renewal. Drivers age 81-86 must have their licenses renewed every two years, while people 87 and older must renew annually.
In Tennessee -- one of the states with no official visual exam requirement for renewal on the books -- drivers may be directed to report to a Driver Service Center to submit to a complete or partial driver examination "if there is information that a driver's ability to safely operate a motor vehicle is questionable," according to the state's driver's license manual.
Kentucky State Rep. Gerald Watkins, D-Paducah, said legislation to change the state's testing requirements is "long overdue."
"It's something that's certainly needed and would save lives," he said.
He added that no legislation will be passed this session, but there's a chance the issue could arise in next year's 60-day session, Watkins said. Until then, it is up to law enforcement and eye care professionals to educate and warn patients who are unfit to drive under Kentucky's standards -- a difficult task, said Gibson, the Paducah optometrist.
She said her father suffered a hereditary eye disease that prompted him to voluntarily turn in his license at 40, a fact she shares with patients who worry about losing their independence when they lose their license.
"I always bring it back to my personal situation: You can live a healthy, active lifestyle without a driver's license," she said. "It's not going to be easy, but you absolutely cannot let that family member drive."
"The last freedom a lot of elderly people have is to drive, and it's difficult to take that away from someone," he said. "But for their own safety and the safety of everyone else, you have to do the right thing. If you feel you may need some assistance in getting that done, we would be willing to assist families in these extreme cases (by filing the affidavit)."