Driving after being diagnosed with cataracts

We know how important driving is to our patients. During a recent survey of over 1,200 patients who had cataract surgery at SpaMedica: 

  • 80% of patients had driven for over 40 years 
  • 96% said driving was important to their independence and quality of life  
  • 88% drive at least once a week, and 40% drive every day 
  • 97% said they would continue driving for as long as possible, regardless of their age 
  • 98% believed they were safe drivers  

If you’re diagnosed with cataracts, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to stop driving, but cataracts can affect your ability to drive safely if you can’t see clearly anymore – especially if you have cataracts in both eyes.  

The College of Optometrists recently published a series of images showing how common eye conditions, including cataracts, can affect your vision when you’re driving. The image on the left shows how a road would appear to someone with normal eyesight, whereas the image on the right shows how it might appear to someone with cataracts. Surroundings appear dimmer and blurrier – like looking through a dirty windscreen – and there’s a noticeable (and potentially hazardous) glare from the headlights of other vehicles.

Cataracts often get progressively worse over time, but your eyes will do their best to adjust and compensate, so you may not realise just how bad your vision has become – but hopefully these images serve to illustrate the stark reality of driving before and after cataracts develop.

As 73-year-old John Shelley – a patient who attended our Sittingbourne hospital – said in a recent interview for Road Safety Week:

“During the pandemic, I wasn’t really going out much so didn’t notice the deterioration quite so quickly as I might have. It was only when I started socialising again that I realised how driving at night had become quite an issue. Poor eyesight at night is, quite simply, a road hazard. Oncoming lights, especially in wet weather, are a big issue when navigating the narrow winding country roads where I live. As you get older, it takes your pupils longer to adjust to sudden light so, on a very dark road, when you’re suddenly confronted with bright headlights coming towards you, it’s a real danger. I knew if I didn’t get help, I’d be stuck at home this winter and that was unthinkable.”

That’s why it’s important to check that you still meet the visual standards for driving by booking an appointment with your optician. Your optician will be able to tell you whether it’s safe for you to carry on driving by performing some simple eye tests. 

Visual acuity test

A visual acuity test measures your ability to see objects (or in the case of an eye examination – letters) clearly. Visual acuity is measured by a letter chart that many of us are already familiar with – it features capital letters in rows of descending sizes. Each row shows the smallest size of letter that a person with healthy vision would be able to see at the specified distance. Visual acuity varies depending on someone’s age, eye shape and eye health.

To be legally able to drive a car, you must have binocular visual acuity of at least 6/12. This means that when you use both eyes together – with the assistance of prescription glasses/contact lenses where necessary – you can see at six metres what a person with healthy vision can see at twelve metres. 

Visual field test 

A visual field test measures your peripheral vision (how far you can see to the side when you’re looking straight ahead) and assesses if you have any blind spots. You must be able to see for at least 160 degrees when looking straight ahead, with an extension of at least 70 degrees to the left and right and 30 degrees up and down.  

During a visual field test, both of your eyes are examined in turn. You’ll be asked to cover one of your eyes – either with your hand or a patch – and you will then be seated in front of a machine with a chin rest and asked to look through a viewfinder at a fixed spot. 

A computer will flash a light at random intervals – some lights will be easier to see than others. When you see a light, you’ll be asked to press a button. It’s important to keep looking straight ahead – don’t move your eyes to look for the light, as this could affect the accuracy of your results.  

Number plate test 

All provisional drivers are required to read a number plate from a distance of 20 metres to pass their practical driving test. Current drivers are expected to be able to do this too. In daylight (wearing glasses or contact lenses if necessary), walk 25 paces away from a parked car with an unfamiliar registration plate, until you’re approximately 20 metres away. Can you read the registration plate without any difficulty?  

You’ll need to pass all three of these tests to meet the minimum standards of vision for driving a car. 

It’s worth noting that rules for lorry and bus drivers are slightly different as they’re expected to have better visual acuity than car drivers. 

What to do after your eye test

If you’re diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes, you’ll need to notify the DVLA regardless of whether you meet the standards of vision for driving, as it’s a legal requirement to tell the DVLA about any medical conditions that affect both of your eyes. If you still meet the standards of vision for driving, it’s likely that you’ll be able to continue driving even if cataracts are affecting both of your eyes, but you’ll need to have regular eye tests to make sure your eyesight doesn’t deteriorate any further. 

If you only have a cataract in one eye and you still meet the standards of vision for driving, you do not need to notify the DVLA or take any further action and you can carry on driving as normal.  

If your eye test shows that you do not meet the standards of vision for driving, you will need to notify the DVLA and your insurers as soon as possible. If you fail to do so, your driving licence and insurance are invalid, and you can be fined up to £1000. You may also be prosecuted if you have an accident.  

You can find out more here: https://www.gov.uk/eye-conditions-and-driving  

The good news is – even if you have to temporarily give up driving because of your cataracts – if you choose to have surgery, it’s likely you’ll be back on the road in no time! After surgery, you’ll attend a post-operative assessment with SpaMedica or your local optician, and they’ll be able to tell you whether you meet the standards of vision for driving again. In most cases, any patients who had to stop driving because of their cataracts can resume driving as soon as they’ve shared the results of their eye test with the DVLA and received confirmation that they’re safe to do so.  

Once you reach the age of 70, you’re legally required to re-apply for your driving licence every 3 years irrespective of whether your vision meets the required standards for driving. 

Don’t forget to wear glasses when driving if you need them – if you have an “01” code on the back of your driving licence (which means you told the DVLA you require glasses to drive when you originally applied for your licence), driving without your glasses is illegal and can result in you being fined, banned from driving or even prosecuted. 

It’s recommended that everyone – regardless of whether they drive or not – gets their eyes tested every 2 years. If you notice any changes to your eyesight, you should book an appointment with your optician as soon as possible.  

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