How well do you need to see in order to drive a car? In the early days of driving in the U.S., licenses to operate a motor vehicle could be purchased for fifty cents, no vision tests required. In Georgia, you could get your license by mail and in Missouri you could buy a driver’s license at the gas station. In the state of Washington, the test was more rigorous—applicants needed the signature of two people testifying that the applicant was competent to drive.

Looking back, it’s easy to laugh at the laxness of these rules. But government officials were hardly qualified to administer eye exams, or grasp the vision requirements necessary for safe driving. Only the concerted efforts of eyecare professionals and medical tech companies forced politicians to take driving vision seriously.

The history of this milestone transition in public safety is highlighted in newly-released photos and documents from the Optical Heritage Museum in Southbridge, Massachusetts. These materials come from the archives of American Optical, now part of Carl Zeiss Vision, a company that played a key role in implementing today’s laws on driving vision.

Images Courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
The first drivers’ licenses were issued in the U.S. in 1899, when New York and Chicago made them mandatory for operating a motor vehicle. But until the late 1920s, virtually no regulations existed to ensure that drivers had adequate vision.

In 1927, the year Henry Ford introduced the Ford Model A automobile, only five states in the US required vision tests for drivers. But an intense publicity movement, spearheaded by American Optical and eyecare professionals, raised awareness of the issue in every part of the country.

Even before the state legislatures acted, optometrists and ophthalmologists used their influence to encourage drivers to undergo voluntary testing. “Motorists! Have Your Eyes Examined!” announced window displays distributed for free by American Optical to thousands of practitioners. At the same time, pressure was put on elected officials to adopt vision standards and mandatory testing for license applicants.

Images Courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
Over the next decade, vision tests became standard procedure, and driving accidents dropped dramatically in response. Auto fatalities per capita had risen steadily in the U.S. during the first three decades of the 20th century. Cars were deadly, and though some of this was due to the vehicles themselves, the most risky part of the technology was the person operating it. Fatality rates eventually declined in the 1930s, but only after states had implemented rigorous vision testing programs.

The battle to ensure adequate driver vision isn’t over. Nine states no longer require vision tests for license renewal. In 2011, New York took this dangerous step—an ironic shift, because this same state had been the first to implement eyesight requirements in the early 20th century. In 2011, Connecticut legislators also dropped tests in order to save $2 million, and few opposed the move.

How risky is this surprising deregulation move? Senior citizens in the U.S. make more than 90 percent of their trips by automobile, and are driving the vehicle almost two-thirds of the time. As auto fatalities in other age groups have declined, they have risen for drivers 65 and older. With the aging of the Baby Boomer demographic, this problem simply won’t go away on its own.

“Eyecare professionals still play a key role in ensuring driver safety and have more to offer than ever before,” remarked Zeiss vice president Karen Roberts, “Just as cars get more technologically advanced with each year, we are also making significant improvements in driving eyewear. More than ever before, the best safety enhancement device for your automobile is your glasses.”