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Posted: November 18, 2008

Vision Tests for Older Drivers May Reduce Fatal Car Crashes

A vision screening law targeting Florida drivers age 80 and older appears to be associated with lower death rates from car accidents involving older drivers. 

A report in the November issue of the journal Archives of Ophthalmology made that link, despite little overall evidence of an association between vision and car crashes. 

With an aging population, public safety officials have expressed growing concern about the increasing number of accidents involving older drivers. Research has suggested that this increase may be partly attributed to medical, functional and cognitive impairments. 

While there's little evidence linking visual perception to involvement in motor vehicle collisions, Florida, in January 2004, enacted a law requiring all drivers 80 years and older to pass a vision test before renewing their driver's license. 

Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham used data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the US Census Bureau to study rates of motor vehicle collision deaths among all drivers and older drivers in Florida between 2001 and 2006. 

They also compared these rates with those in Alabama and Georgia, neighboring states that did not change their legal requirements during this time period. 

Overall death rates from motor vehicle collisions in Florida increased non-significantly between 2001 and 2006, but showed a linear decrease in drivers age 80 and older. 

When comparing the period before the law (2001 to 2003) with the period after the law (2004 to 2006), the fatality rate among all drivers increased by 6% (from 14.61 per 100,000 persons per year to 14.75 per 100,000). 

At the same time, fatality rates among older drivers decreased by 17% (from 16.03 per 100,000 persons per year to 10.76 per 100,000). Death rates among older drivers did not change in Alabama or Georgia during the same time period. 

Several potential reasons exist for the decline in Florida, the authors note. 

"Perhaps the most apparent reason is that the screening law removed visually impaired drivers from the road," the authors write. "However, in reality, the situation is significantly more complex." 

About 93% of those who sought a license renewal were able to obtain one, suggesting that only a small percentage of drivers were removed from the road for failing to meet the vision standards. 

Another possibility is that the vision screening requirement improved visual function overall, because many of those who do not pass the test on the first try seek vision care and then return with improved vision. 

Finally, those who believe they have poor vision may have been discouraged from renewing their license at all, voluntarily removing themselves from the road. 

"Ultimately, whether the vision screening law is responsible for the observed reduction in fatality rates because of the identification of visually impaired drivers or via another, yet related, mechanism may be inconsequential from a public safety perspective," the authors wrote. "However, the importance of driving to the well-being of older adults suggests that isolating the true mechanism responsible for the decline is in fact important." 

Future research identifying this mechanism would allow states to implement laws that accurately target high-risk drivers while allowing low-risk older drivers to retain their mobility, they conclude. 

(Article courtesy of ConsumerAffairs.com)

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