Three European eyewear industry associations have put out a document recommending that the European Commission should harmonize the highly diverging visual screening standards for safe driving existing in the European Union by encouraging member states to adopt the criteria used by the best performing countries.

The European Commission had set a deadline of January 2011 for member states to report their plans for implementing its 2006 Directive on Drivers Licenses. It updated the directive in 2009, establishing minimum visual requirements, and set an August 2010 deadline for their implementation.

The European eyewear industry has been lobbying for more stringent requirements on the strength of various studies that indicate a high risk of road accidents if current criteria are kept in place in some countries. In particular, the industry has emphasized the need to test visual acuity and visual fields.

The document, which highlights major differences in these criteria from one European country to the other, was issued last June 14 by Eurom 1, the European federation of optical industry associations; ECOO, the European Council of Optometry and Optics; and Euromcontact, the European association of contact lens manufacturers. It makes an interesting and useful comparison among the vision screening criteria of 26 European countries, five of which don't belong to the European Union.

The report notes that five countries continue to rely on an outdated visual assessment method commonly called the “Licence Plate Test.” In these five countries - Cyprus, France, the Netherlands, Norway and the U.K. – the eye test is performed by an employee of a driving test center. In another country, Sweden, a non-medical driving test employee can perform additional tests for visual acuity and visual fields if he or she has been trained for the task.

The first license can be issued in most countries only after the driver is examined by an ophthalmologist or a medical doctor. The report is suggesting that drivers should have a choice to get their vision assessed by medical practitioners such as ophthalmologists, eye doctors, optometrists and opticians who have the necessary equipment and expertise. An optometrist or an optician can perform the test in Austria and Switzerland.

In contrast with those that only conduct a “Licence Plate Test,” the majority of countries require an assessment of visual acuity and visual fields before issuing the first driving license. In addition to Sweden, the countries are Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia and Switzerland. Only visual acuity is measured in Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Slovenia.

The highest visual standards for safe driving have been enforced in Austria, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Serbia and Turkey, where other parameters are assessed in addition to visual acuity and visual fields. In particular, the Irish government demands also that diplopia, or double vision, should be checked. The Portuguese government asks for a test of color vision on top of visual acuity and visual fields.

Pointing out that vision changes with age, and that many drivers don't notice these changes, the three European bodies are expressing concern over the fact that the current European directives does not set any minimum requirements for periodical eye tests on taxi drivers, sales people and other professional drivers.

They feel that best practice exists in this respect in Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Serbia, Spain and Turkey, where regular assessments of vision are made during the driving career. They are particularly critical of the situation in the U.K., where professional drivers are expected to self-assess their vision standards and to state that they must do so at three-year intervals from the age of 70.

While professional drivers must get their vision checked at regular intervals in most other countries, especially after the age of 60, no requirements exist for such reassessment in Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Sweden and the U.K.

The report notes that the fee paid by drivers for vision screening varies widely from one country to the other. The German government has set a fee of €6.43 to test visual acuity, but it can go up to as much as €45 in Greece and €52 in Hungary.