Fitness to drive

Optometrists have always been at pains to stress that the MOT standard number plate test is not in itself a sufficient guide as to someone’s fitness to drive.

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Author: Neil Handley, Museum Curator
Date: 1 June 2015

1st June 2015 marks the 80th anniversary of the compulsory driving test in the UK.  Even then, if you had begun driving prior to April Fool’s Day 1934, you could continue driving without ever having passed a test. This meant that, even until relatively recently, there were some older drivers on the roads who had never demonstrated their fitness to be behind the wheel.

Introduced with the driving test, was the Ministry of Transport driver’s eyesight requirement – the so-called car number plate test. This always took place before the main test began; if you couldn’t see it wasn’t worth continuing, however it has always been permissible to wear spectacles for the test; the licence will be valid just as long as the driver always wears the same vision correction whenever they drive.

The test remains the only form of eye test (as opposed to visual screening) that can legally be performed by a non-qualified person, ie. a policeman or a driving instructor, and failure in the test at the roadside can lead to the confiscation of your car keys.

An old-style registration plate in the College museum serves to illustrate this point. When I was looking to source one I rang up a prominent contact lens manufacturer who is also known as a vintage car enthusiast. He had a plate of precisely the right age in his garage which was originally attached to a 1935 Riley. In the 1930s Riley enjoyed much racing car success and, by mid-1933, the Riley Motor Club had become the largest single-make motor club in the world, with over 2000 members. The design of the plate is very different from one of today. The three letters followed by three numbers system had just been introduced and lasted until the mid 1950s and reflective number plates weren't introduced until 1973.

The distance at which the plate must be read used to be 20.5 metres, but was reduced to 20 metres when the current format of plate was introduced in 2001. I remember my own driving test very well. The test instructor asked me to ‘read the plate on that Ford Escort over there’. I replied ‘Oh, you mean that Ford Orion?’ thereby demonstrating still higher powers of visual observation! 

The test remains the only form of eye test (as opposed to visual screening) that can legally be performed by a non-qualified person, ie. a policeman or a driving instructor, and failure in the test at the roadside can lead to the confiscation of your car keys. Nevertheless, as optometrists have always been at pains to stress, the MOT standard number plate test is not in itself a sufficient guide as to someone’s fitness to drive. Other clinical factors such as their field of vision at speed and capacity for dark-adaptation may be of importance, not to mention the other physical factors affecting their ability to see well on the road, whether that be correctly aligned headlights, glare from sunlight, tinted windscreens etc.

Neil Handley MA AMA FRSA
Museum Curator, The College of Optometrists

Neil Handley is recognised as one the UK’s principal historians of spectacles, vision aids and opticians. He has been curator of the British Optical Association Museum at The College of Optometrists in London since 1998 and is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers.

The Curator is available for lectures and informal talks off-site as well as guided tours of the museum gallery and College Meeting Rooms. Considered to be an authority on ophthalmic history he can also advise on items on optical and optometric heritage including their identification and dating. He has been awarded the medal of the Ocular Heritage Society of America on several occasions.

Neil was awarded the Associateship of the Museums Association in 2002 and was one of the first 17 museum professionals in the country to gain the AMA+ qualification in May 2007. He now serves as a Museums Association Mentor for younger curators.

Neil was elected Chairman of the prestigious London Museums of Health and Medicine (2011-14), widely considered within the profession to be one of the most dynamic and go-ahead museum specialist networks. During this time he oversaw that organisation's first strategic review for fifteen years. He is also a past Vice Chairman of the Scientific Instrument Society and became a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA) in 2012.

Front cover of the book Cult Eyewear 2011

Neil  has published articles on spectacle frame design, the history of opticians, artificial eyes and facial prosthetics. He has contributed to a number of books on the history of the subject, including a chapter on artificial eyes for the book Devices and Designs (2006) and the major German publication Treasury of Optics (2012). He spent much of 2009 and 2010 writing a book on Cult Eyewear, the first serious analytical study of the historical development of branded fashion spectacle frames, published by Merrell on 27 September 2011. He also co-authored, with David Cartwright, the second volume of the College History, The College of Optometrists: A History 1998-2015, published in October 2015. He has also written articles for journals as diverse as Optometry in Practice, Contact Lens and Anterior Eye, Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, From the Master and Wardens (newsletter of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers), Ophthalmic Antiques, Gewina (Dutch Journal for the History of Science), Antiquarian Horology and Pharmaceutical Historian.

Contact the Curator by email

Or follow him on Twitter @neilhandleyuk

 

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