Your vision and driving: legal eyesight requirements and eye conditions that affect driving

Over two-thirds of UK adults aged over 70 hold a driver’s licence, many of whom have been driving for most of their adult life with little incident. However, getting older can affect your ability to drive irrespective of your experience. Changes in eyesight, in particular, can contribute to a reduced ability to drive safely.

If your vision has deteriorated, this doesn’t necessarily mean you can no longer drive as the right measures can restore your vision.

The minimum eyesight requirements for driving

To legally drive in the UK, you need to: 

  • Be able to read a licence plate from 20 metres away 
  • Have a visual acuity of at least 0.5 (6/12) on the Snellen scale
  • Have an adequate field of vision

What is visual acuity?

Visual acuity is measured using the Snellen scale. A Snellen test usually involves reading rows of letters on a chart, where the letters get smaller the further down the chart you read. On the Snellen scale, normal visual acuity is called 6/6, which means you can correctly read the bottom or second bottom line of the chart.

Having a visual acuity of 6/12 on the Snellen scale, which is the minimum legal requirement for driving, means you need to be 6 metres away from an object to see what a person with good eyesight can see from 12 metres away.

What is the field of vision?

The field of vision is the area that you can see at any one time without moving your eyes. This is measured through a visual field test. A normal visual field is 170o. This means you can see 170o of the area around you without moving your eyes. An adequate field of vision, as legally required to drive in the UK, is a visual field of at least 120o.

Eye conditions that impair driving

The most common eye conditions that can prevent you from being able to legally drive in the UK are:

  • Age-related changes such as presbyopia — this refers to long-sightedness caused by the lenses of your eyes becoming less elastic with age
  • Cataracts — progressive clouding of the lenses in your eyes, which makes your vision blurry and colours appear faded
  • Diabetic retinopathy — a complication of diabetes that damages the blood vessels that supply the light-sensitive tissue at the back of your eyes (retina) 
  • Glaucoma — a sight-threatening condition that causes irreversible damage to your vision due to increased pressure in your eyeballs
  • Macular degeneration — a sight-threatening condition that causes irreversible damage to your central vision due to deterioration of the tissue near the centre of your retina (macula) 

If you are long or short-sighted, or colour blind, you do not need to inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). However, if you are long or short-sighted and need to wear corrective glasses or contact lenses to meet minimum vision requirements, you must do so whenever you drive. 

If you have any other eye conditions that affect both of your eyes, or your remaining eye if you only have one eye, you need to inform the DVLA. This may include having cataracts. 

Driving with cataracts

If you have cataracts in one or both eyes, you may find driving at night, driving in the rain, driving in high traffic and parallel parking challenging. 

However, if you only have a cataract in one eye and you still meet the minimum vision requirements for driving, you do not need to notify the DVLA and can carry on driving as normal. In contrast, if you have cataracts in both eyes and/or do not meet minimum vision requirements for driving you must notify the DVLA. 

If cataracts are preventing you from meeting legal driving requirements, it may be time for cataract removal surgery. This surgery has a high success rate and is a straightforward, short procedure. It can restore your vision, such that you meet the minimum vision requirements for driving. 

After you have recovered from your cataract removal surgery, you can see your ophthalmologist (a doctor who specialises in treating the eyes) to check the stability of your eyesight and determine whether you now meet the minimum vision requirements for driving. 

An image simulating someone driving with cataracts

When should you get your eyes tested?

Whether or not you are a driver, it is recommended that adults get their eyes tested at least every two years. If you have certain eye conditions, such as glaucoma, or conditions that may affect your eyesight, such as diabetes, your optometrist may recommend annual eye tests. 

If you are a driver aged 70 or over, you are legally required to renew your driver’s licence on turning 70 and every three years thereafter. Although it is not a requirement to have an eye test to renew your licence, it is strongly advised for your safety and the safety of others on the road. 

If you notice any of the below symptoms in between your regular eye tests, you should see an optometrist as soon as possible to have your eyes checked: 

  • A dark spot in your central or peripheral vision
  • A noticeable decrease in your vision or blurry vision
  • Difficulty reading road signs or spotting pedestrians
  • Glare or halos when looking at oncoming headlights or streetlights

If your optometrist is concerned that you have an eye condition that needs more treatment than they can provide, you will be referred to an ophthalmologist. You can then receive appropriate treatment, which may help you continue legally driving for longer.

Author biography

Mr Mohamed Elalfy is a Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon at Spire Gatwick Park Hospital, Spire Tunbridge Wells Hospital, and Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, specialising in cataract surgery, age-related macular degeneration treatment, laser eye treatment and eyelid cyst surgery. He is a fellow of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists in London, the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow, the European Board of Ophthalmology and the International Council of Ophthalmology. Mr Elalfy has published over 50 peer-reviewed papers and performed thousands of sight-saving surgeries.

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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