Eighty-nine year-old Dr Turner Waddell drove the wrong way for a mile along a dual carriageway in Hampshire, even as other motorists flashed their lights and beeped their horns.

He then collided head-on with another car, in a collision that sadly killed 28-year-old driver Neil Colquhoun. Dr Turner, who had failed an eye test the day before, was found to be blind in one eye and below the legal eyesight limit in the other. He was prosecuted for causing death by careless driving and received a nine-month suspended sentence with a lifetime disqualification from driving.

Neil’s death is one of many tragic examples that show what can happen when people get behind the wheel despite having poor eyesight. 

The impact of ageing on eyesight

It's very common for people’s eyesight to get worse as they get older, sometimes in the space of just 12 months, and often in a way that is hard to notice. 

This deterioration can be a natural part of ageing or due to medical conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy - the images below give an idea of how drivers’ vision can be affected.

Medical conditions affecting eyesight

Images courtesy of the Older Driver Forum

Some conditions make it harder to see far ahead, spot objects in your side vision, cope with glare from oncoming headlights at night, or change focus between looking ahead and at displays on the dashboard. It can become harder to see road signs, markings, pedestrians and other road users, and more difficult to judge someone else's speed or distance.

People aren’t having eyesight checks

Despite the risks from driving with deteriorating eyesight – and the requirement for drivers to self-report to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) if they believe their vision doesn’t meet its rules – the Royal National Institute of Blind People has estimated that 13.8m people don’t have regular eye tests. And a survey by Rias insurance showed that 40% of people aren't having their eyes regularly checked.

This puts older people at particular risk as they are more susceptible to deterioration in their sight.

Mandatory checks are needed

With an increasing number of drivers aged over 70 – forecast to grow from 5m to 8m by 2030 – this problem is likely to worsen, unless action is taken.

Currently from the age of 70, drivers have to renew their licence every three years, which requires them to state that they are fit to drive, but vision checks aren’t a compulsory part of this.

Thankfully, the government is responding to campaigning from Ageas and road safety groups for mandatory checks. The Department for Transport announced in July that it would research how much of an impact poor vision has on road safety. It is also considering introducing mandatory eyesight tests at 70 and then every three years after that.

The Department for Transport is also planning research into the causes of the most serious collisions involving older drivers and how to prevent them. This was a course of action recommended by the Older Drivers Task Force, which is supported by Ageas.

Rob Heard, road safety sergeant at Hampshire Constabulary, says: “Having good vision is essential to safe driving and we recommend people have regular eyesight tests. As we get older eyesight can deteriorate quickly without us realising and without correction can be a major issue sometimes leading to serious collisions resulting in death or significant injury."

Sergeant Heard chairs The Older Driver Forum, a not-for-profit organisation providing courses and advice from experts specialising in keeping older people safely for longer. He adds: “Mandatory regular eyesight tests for drivers would be invaluable to help keep our roads safer for all and also pick up conditions early so they can be treated, allowing us all to carry on driving safely for longer.”

Being able to drive is a key part of maintaining independence for older people, and frequent eye tests would help ensure they can continue do so safely.

To read more about road safety go to Solved.