The Eyes Have It


Think you're a pretty good driver? Kath reckons you should get your eyes checked

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There are a lot of skills that grown adults develop after having a kid. As the mother of a seven-year-old, I can still be surprised by my capacity to innovate in response to her unexpected requirements. Most recently, her demands have centred on my ability to competently use a sewing machine to pull together a range of daughter-directed projects ranging from car seat covers to ninja masks.

It’s this recent foray into haberdashery that’s made me reflect on how much our faculties deteriorate over the years – with many of us barely noticing. It’s been at least 25 years since I last sat behind a presser foot and sewing needle. When I was in my 20s, I simply threaded the cotton through the sewing machine’s needle and got on with things. But as I inch towards my half-century, I can no longer focus clearly enough to do this simple task without donning a bizarre set of magnifying goggles that make me look like a Fred Hollows impersonator.

Similarly, for long distance vision, I now wear prescription lenses. Their value is most obvious when I take to the roads at dusk and at night. Before I put on my glasses, headlights and tail lights of vehicles appear to be surrounded by furry halos. And this is probably okay when I’m sitting in the passenger seat.

But, as someone who spends a lot of time on the road, I’m acutely aware of the importance of good eyesight. When I’m behind the wheel, I need to see vehicle lights narrow into sharp, distinct points, to better see into the verge at the side of the road and to accurately judge distances.

My reaction time behind the wheel is the result of a number of factors, but eyesight is key – for visual acuity, peripheral vision and for depth perception. I rely on my eyes to help me detect potential hazards, to recognise them as hazards and to give me adequate time to do something about them. So I wear my glasses when I drive – no ifs, no buts.

Reflecting on this state of affairs, I’m pretty discouraged to realise that our eyesight seems to be hard-wired to falter from a fairly early stage in life. From the age of 40, our vision gradually deteriorates. The reasons vary. In some cases it’s simply because the lenses in our eyes become less flexible as we grow older. In other cases diet, lifestyle and genetics come into play.

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The risk of serious eye disease increases three times for every decade over the age of 40. Indeed, by the time we’re 50, one in every seven people will suffer from macular degeneration – the leading cause of legal-blindness in Australia (source: Macular Disease Foundation).

What bothers me most as a driver is that eye deterioration isn’t necessarily obvious to start with. Some eye diseases can go undetected until they reach an advanced stage. And we can’t rely on our local driver licencing authority to keep track of things for us. Vision tests simply aren’t administered often enough for them to be a reliable gauge.

For example, in the ACT a vision test is conducted for the initial driver's licence and then on renewal at ages 50, 60, 65, 70, 75 and annually thereafter. So that means that there could be a 19-year period, between the ages of 40–59, when a driver is only exposed to just one mandatory eyesight test – despite being firmly in the risk-bracket for age-related eyesight loss.

We all have an obligation to self-declare any medical condition that may affect our fitness to drive, but what if we don’t realise it’s happening? For my own part, I couldn’t forgive myself if I were responsible for an accident where I hadn’t taken all available measures to avoid it. So, I have my eyesight professionally checked annually to gauge my visual health and to ensure that my glasses offer the right level of visual correction – year after year.

And for the sake of my safety on the road, and that of my family, I really hope you’re doing the same.