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DMV: No more eye exams to get a license

A file photo of traffic on the Long

A file photo of traffic on the Long Island Expressway near Exit 40 in Jericho. (March 17, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

New Yorkers are no longer required to take an eye exam to renew their driver's licenses, a move that took effect this week with little warning, raising the ire of traffic-safety advocates, doctors and politicians.

The Department of Motor Vehicles rule change allows drivers to self-certify that they have at least 20/40 vision. Drivers' eyesight previously had to be tested every eight years.

Dropping the need for drivers to come into a DMV office for an exam or have information on file from a doctor, is part of a streamlining of the agency, which now permits numerous services to be performed online, officials said.

DMV spokeswoman Jackie McGinnis said 14 other states, including Connecticut and Pennsylvania, either allow self-certification or do not require vision testing.

But the change, which took effect Wednesday, stunned a number of New York safety advocates, including several state legislators.

"I am extremely surprised about the DMV's decision," said Assemb. Philip Boyle (R-Bay Shore), a former emergency medical technician who once aided people in car crashes. "I don't think this is in the best interest of public safety."

State Sen. Patty Ritchie (R-Heuvelton) vowed to take a countermeasure to the chamber floor.

As a former county clerk, Ritchie said she administered the eye test to dozens of motorists. Some didn't know their vision had severely diminished.

"Some of them can't read the bottom line, and some can't even read the top line of the eye chart," she said.

New York eliminated the eye test requirement once before, between 1993 and 2000. McGinnis said there was no significant rise in car crashes as a result of dropping the rule, noting there were 258,596 accidents statewide in 1992 compared with 263,604 in 1998.

The DMV reinstated the requirement, however, after it was recommended by a state advisory board of medical and consumer advocates.

Robert Sinclair, Jr., spokesman for AAA New York in Garden City, complained Thursday about being "blindsided" by the sudden reversal.

"There was no advanced warning, no phone call, no email," he said. "And we were a member of the advisory board the last time around."

The automobile drivers' organization, he said, is joining with the New York State Ophthalmological Society to push for reinstatement of the eye exam.

Dr. Ira Udell, chief of ophthalmology at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System and the society's incoming president, said visual acuity changes over time, and with an increasingly aging population, it's important that drivers undergo periodic eye tests. "Our organization will be doing everything we can possibly do to have this reversed," Udell said. "We think it's dangerous and shortsighted."

McGinnis said allowing people to pledge that their vision is fine is not much different from the DMV requirement for heart patients who self-certify that they have a pacemaker or other implanted cardiac device.

The rule change will help reduce long lines at DMV offices statewide and allow motorists to renew licenses online or by mail, she said.

At the DMV office in Massapequa Thursday, Anthony Boakey-Yiadom, 52, a teacher from West Hempstead, opposed the change. He said he found out years ago that he was nearsighted after failing a DMV eye test.

"It's a safety issue. There should be outrage over this," he said.

Justin Michell, 22, of West Babylon, disagreed. "I don't think you need a government agency telling you if you're fit to drive or not," the Stony Brook University student said.

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