Eye-Check All Drivers for Safer Roads

There are plenty of practical reasons for issuing driver’s licenses to noncitizens, but one of the most important is mostly overlooked: vision tests.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, New York State allowed anyone 16 and older, regardless of their immigration status, to apply for permission to drive legally; in 12 other states that is currently the law. Now, a renewed push is underway to reinstate the policy in New York. This makes sense.        

Backers of the movement say that undocumented people should not face deportation or lengthy detention if caught driving without a license. They also say that a lack of alternatives to driving, especially in areas like ours with only the most minimal public transportation, can keep immigrants from getting medical care and other essential services. Licensed drivers are almost always covered by an insurance policy, and, advocates say, premiums paid by the rest of us have grown, in part to compensate for the shortfall created by accidents involving unlicensed and uninsured drivers and vehicles.

Some in law enforcement insist that licenses open to everyone, regardless of immigration status, would make their jobs easier. Courts would not face the ridiculous situation of repeatedly revoking an offender’s nonexistent right to drive. As one East Hampton Town police officer put it, “Giving them licenses would mean that they had something we could take away.”

There are, of course, downsides. For example, it is possible that formerly unlicensed people who hitched rides to work would begin to buy their own vehicles, adding to traffic. But, weighed in the balance, that concern pales alongside the humanitarian concerns and safety benefits.

This takes us back to vision tests and the likelihood that at least some unlicensed drivers are on the roads with bad eyesight. In addition to a written exam and a road test, applicants must, of course, demonstrate an adequate ability to see. The demands of driving require a complex balance of central and peripheral vision, in varying light conditions. A study conducted in India found that the rate of accidents among people with poor vision was almost a third higher than that of the driving population as a whole. Indeed, some researchers say that current exams do not go far enough. 

We do not know how many unlicensed drivers are out there behind the wheel, unaware that they need corrective lenses. For this reason alone, changing the licensing law would make bicyclists, pedestrians, and other drivers a lot safer.