It would seem that once a person’s vision deteriorates to point of being legally blind, the next step is to surrender the driver’s license. Not so fast. Here’s another instance where vision research and technology are improving quality of life.
One company, Ocutech, located in Chapel Hill, NC is helping persons with low vision drive a car, read books and go shopping again. This company manufactures low vision bioptic telescopes.
While devices to help with reading have been around for many years, devices that help people with low vision see at a distance didn’t quite do the job. That’s where Ocutech comes in. This company developed bioptic telescopes with help from a National Eye Institute (NEI) grant. Wearers are able to take driver’s license test and receive a restricted driver’s license, which allows people to drive during daylight hours.
Bioptic telescopes aren’t the only development as a result of vision research. Driving performance studies look at the relationship between certain eye conditions and car collision risk. Cynthia Owsley, PhD of the University of Alabama at Birmingham studied over 2000 drivers, age 70 and older for three years. She found that the loss of the visual field including peripheral vision lead to more car crashes. Conditions such as glaucoma and cataracts obviously affect driving. Thankfully, cataracts can be removed, and Owsley’s research found that those who had cataract surgery had a 50 percent lower risk of car collisions. This is one more reason to encourage persons with cataracts to get them removed.
There’s more that’s going on at the University of Alabama when it comes to low vision. The school has a driving assessment clinic that helps people with low vision drive with the help of bioptic telescopes. Once someone meets certain vision requirements, he or she receives training on how to navigate using the bioptic telescopes. First the person uses the device while walking, then as a passenger, and finally as driver. It takes about a year of practice before a person can take the Alabama driving test.
In addition, rehab to train the visual/neural system may be able to help people with low vision. While there are computer based cognitive training programs, they aren’t focused on helping persons with compromised vision due to stroke or other conditions. Another study done at the University of Alabama is researching the use of the commercially available BrainHQ cognitive training system to see if this can help increase visual processing speed and if it can be used to help people with low or compromised vision become safer drivers.
Even low-tech devices like peripheral prism glasses can help those who have lost of half of their visual field, a condition known as hemianopia. The prisms are placed on eyeglasses both above and below the line of sight. The prisms help to compensate for blind spots by shifting the light from the blind side of the visual field to the seeing side. These were tested in driving simulators and they did help subjects better detect hazards.
No one can say that a person with low vision has no drive to succeed. Thanks to advanced technology and vision aids, many now have the chance to drive an automobile.