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By Ry Rivard

Charleston Daily Mail Capitol Reporter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As many as 4,800 West Virginia drivers failed a Department of Motor Vehicles eye examination last year, the agency estimates.

A year after a state law took effect mandating the exams for license renewal, about 400 of the 21,000 drivers who come into renew their license each month have failed, said Steve Dale, deputy DMV commissioner.

He said the numbers were a ballpark figure. There are about 1.3 million drivers in West Virginia.

 

In fact, over the course of a year, about 2 percent of existing drivers - drivers who are on the road with a valid license before they come into the DMV - failed the newly mandated exam to renew their license. Renewals are required every five years.

The law requires 20/40 vision in one eye based on a machine test given at the DMV office or a doctor's note. Drivers who fail the DMV machine test still can renew their licenses either by going to an eye doctor and getting new glasses and contacts, or by having a doctor certify the driver has 20/60 vision in at least one eye and can safely operate a motor vehicle.

One such driver was Nancy Williams, 60, of Pinch.

Earlier this month, Williams went to the DMV and put her eyes up to one of the exam machines.

"They just said, 'Read line five,' and I couldn't read any of it," she said.

Williams, who just retired from Herbert Hoover High School after 34 years as a teacher, said entering retirement without a license would be "tragic."

Williams contends there is a difference between the DMV's machine and traditional eye charts.

But she went to her eye doctor, took an exam and got new glasses and a note that allowed her to renew her license.

"I was thinking I wouldn't be able to drive," she said, after having her license renewed Friday, the first day of her retirement.

"How life-changing would that be? It would be devastating," she said.

It's likely many of the drivers who fail the exam are seniors, officials said.

However, the DMV doesn't track that data. It also is not clear how many drivers who initially fail the test later get their license renewed after seeing a doctor.

The law, which took effect on Jan. 2, 2009, brought the state in line with the vast majority of other states that require vision screenings for license renewals. West Virginia already required eye exams for new drivers.

So far, it's not clear if there is a significant impact on the overall driving population because of the exams. However, between June 2008 and June 2009, the state had about 9,000 fewer drivers.

"This variance is well within the normal statistical up and down between each year, so it cannot be attributed to any one factor such as vision screening," Dale said.

In Florida, which passed a law several years ago requiring drivers age 80 and older to pass a vision screening, 7 percent of senior drivers lost their licenses as a result of the new exams, according to a 2008 study in Archives of Ophthalmology, a medical journal.

The study also found data to suggest that the Florida law resulted in a reduction in the number of motor vehicle fatalities among seniors.

"These licensing decisions are especially hard because the driver may have been an excellent, safe and law-abiding driver for 60 years, went to war to protect us and paid his taxes on time," Dale said in an e-mail.

"However, like all other DMVs, we have to consider the other motorists and pedestrians, as well as the safety of the driver himself. These are cases that are difficult for our examiners all the way up to the commissioner."

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