Indian drivers blind behind the wheel?

With driving tests in India not factoring in visual acuity, poor eyesight could be a major culprit in road accidents

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:07 pm IST

Published - April 10, 2016 01:33 am IST

India has a driving problem that its motorists have long been blind to. Eighty per cent of road accidents are termed “fault of the driver”, according to a 2013 analysis by the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. Other factors such as a malfunctioning vehicle, bad roads and the fault of pedestrians together made up no more than seven per cent.

Nearly 2,00,000 people are killed in road accidents in India, according to the World Health Organization, the second highest globally behind China. While driver culpability is a key cause in other parts of the world too, fine-grained analyses have held poor vision to be a major culprit.

Vision tests

Since the 1920s, there are statistics to show that drivers with visual acuity problems were twice likely to be involved in a crash than those with normal vision. Those with protanopia, or red-green colour blindness, have been issued a restricted driving licence in Australia since 1994. Depth perception — to judge the speed of incoming vehicles — and glare recovery, a measure of how quickly drivers can resume control of their vehicles when suddenly blinded by the lights of an incoming vehicle, are all known to be play a key role in road safety. Then there are impairments such as a weak central field of vision or obstructed peripheral vision that have been found to be responsible for higher accident rates and fatalities by several multi-location international studies.

On the back of such evidence, the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden and the United States all include detailed vision tests for granting a driving licence. India, with an average of 300 road accident deaths a day, however has no equivalent of a vision test as part of the driving test requirements. “It’s the equivalent of a fully loaded jumbo jet crashing everyday and nobody blinks,” rues Ashish Verma, who researches issues in transport, at the Indian Institute of Science, in Bengaluru,

Empirical evidence

To check if deficient vision could explain, to an extent, road accident fatalities in India, Mr. Verma and his colleagues tested the visual acuity of 387 Indian drivers across organisations, age groups and driving experience who volunteered for the study. Nearly two-thirds of those tested were commercial drivers of heavy vehicles and drivers of private buses. The rest were licensed drivers of private vehicles as well as some in the process of applying for a beginner’s licence. The previous driving history of the sample drivers were also collated and all the drivers were then tested on a vision screener — a machine that’s frequently used in many driving schools around the world to test for visual acuity, colour vision, night vision, depth perception, contrast sensitivity, glare recovery, peripheral vision and vertical field of vision. Worryingly, Mr. Verma’s report on the study in the March issue of the peer-reviewed journal Current Science found that more than half of the entire sample (52 per cent) failed in at least one of the vision parameters tested; 81 per cent of those tested with at least one visual disability turned out to have a past record of an accident and 60 per cent of commercial bus drivers failed the minimum vision requirements for driving. A major limitation of the study was that the tests were restricted to drivers from Karnataka but Mr. Verma is confident that the rest of the country wouldn’t fare substantially better.

Neelima Chakrabarty of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-Central Road Research Institute in Delhi has worked for decades on the psychology of drivers, road rage and how the environment can affect the quality of driving. “Deficient vision is a key culprit… but in India poor roads and worse infrastructure can make it hard to separate the effect of vision from environmental conditions,” says Dr. Chakrabarty, also a co-author on Mr. Verma’s study. Though she’s pointed these out to both the Central and Delhi governments, there has been no tangible change in the laws of testing for vision in issuing licences.

The Motor Vehicles Act is the Central law that governs rules regarding licences but licences, ultimately, are a State subject. For Indian commercial licences, an applicant requires a medical certificate attesting 6/6 or normal vision whereas a private licence only requires the applicant to self-certify. “As a concerned citizen, I submitted my findings to the Road Transport Ministry but haven’t heard anything… at the very least we could consider restricted licence for the visually deficient,” says Mr. Verma.

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