Eye exam chart

Eye exam chart Credit: iStock.com

Ever wonder why it's so hard for government to cut spending? Just take a good look at the uproar over New York's recent decision -- since put on hold -- to eliminate eye tests for driver's license renewals.

Starting last Wednesday, the Department of Motor Vehicles decreed that drivers could simply attest they have 20/40 vision instead of deciphering the familiar eye chart at a DMV office or supplying evidence of visual acuity from an eye-care professional. Of course, under such a regime some drivers will lie. Others will merely give themselves the benefit of the doubt.

The problem is, it's not at all clear that making drivers pass an eye test does anything to prevent accidents. In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says studies of visual acuity and auto safety show little or no connection between the two, however surprising that may be. Fourteen other states make do without a license-renewal eye test, and New York got by without it from 1993 to 2000, with no significant increase in crashes. Perhaps most drivers who attest to their own vision do so honestly.

Eliminating eye tests, moreover, could save the state money on the more than 2.4 million license renewals it handles annually. Dropping the test saves drivers time and money, too, because more of them can renew without coming into the DMV or visiting an eye doctor. Eliminating these trips will probably even eliminate some auto accidents.

Nonetheless, by Friday the DMV had put its perfectly defensible decision on hold, under fire from AAA and the state's eye care professionals. DMV Commissioner Barbara J. Fiala said she had asked for a review of the matter by, among others, New York's organized ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians -- outfits unlikely to agree that millions of New Yorkers no longer need a lot of eye tests.

But New York can't afford to spend money on safety measures that don't produce any actual safety. On the contrary, governments have to reassess everything they do to see if it works, or if the money involved could be spent better elsewhere. Those who reflexively protest the dangers of such moves -- especially politicians who say they want to shrink government and eliminate burdensome regulations -- ought to look more carefully at whether the costs of dubious programs outweigh the benefits. Society can't continue throwing money at problems without evidence that this spending is worthwhile, especially when voters and politicians adamantly oppose additional taxes.

New York always ranks at or near the top in the tax burden borne by its citizens. If we are ever to lighten that load, or prevent it from growing heavier, the end of DMV eye tests is precisely the kind of change we'll have to see more of down the road. hN