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Albany blinks on eye tests

By Fritz Mayer
October 5, 2011

The plan was to allow the 2.4 million drivers in New York State who seek to renew their driving licenses each year to “self-certify” that their vision is up to par; they would no longer need a vision test performed at the many Department of Motor Vehicle offices around the state, or a note from their eye-doctor, to get a driver license renewal.

Many people, including Sullivan County Clerk Dan Briggs, thought this was a bad idea and a threat to public safety. Briggs issued a press release on September 30, saying, “This is a safety issue plain and simple. The purpose of a vision test or medical certification from an eye care professional is to ensure that drivers meet the appropriate vision requirements in order to safely operate a motor vehicle.”

The measure took effect on September 28, but the policy change brought so much condemnation that, about the same time Briggs issued his press release, officials in Albany announced that the change was being rescinded. New York State Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Barbara Fiala said the change would be held back until a medical advisory board could be consulted about how best to test drivers’ vision.

Fiala said the New York State Ophthalmological Society, the New York State Optometric Association, the New York State Society of Opticians, and the Medical Society of the State of New York and the governor’s office would all be involved with examining “the options to maximize public safety and simultaneously enable streamlining of government service.”

Briggs said ending the tests would mean that vision problems for many people would go undetected. He said the tests performed at the government center in Monticello sometimes turn up people who have vision problems that uncorrected would prevent them from getting a license. He said, “Some applicants have even been unable to see the chart, nonetheless the letters.”

So why did the DMV make the switch to begin with? Briggs said it was a money-grab on Albany’s part. If drivers can self-certify, they can take care of the entire process of renewing a license on the Internet, and when that happens Albany keeps the entire fee. When the renewal process takes place at the county clerk’s office, the county gets to keep a portion of the fee.

Briggs said his main concern was safety, but the move would also mean less money for the county. In the case of Sullivan County, the change would mean a drop of $38,000 to $40,000 in revenue per year.

The DMV said 14 states, including four that border New York, currently allow motorists to renew their driver license without a vision test.