The S.C. Legislature last year abolished the eye exam you once needed to renew your driver’s license, but now some lawmakers aren’t sure that was a good idea.
Seventeen House members have signed onto a proposal that would bring back the required vision screenings, part of a push by eye doctors and other advocates to make S.C. roads safer by ensuring everyone on them can see.
But the exams were a waste of time and money that didn’t make S.C. roads any safer, S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles director Kevin Shwedo says.
The retired Army colonel says restoring the exams would derail his agency’s efforts to reduce the lines and wait times at Motor Vehicles offices, expected later this year as 4 million S.C. drivers begin upgrading to federally compliant Real ID driver’s licenses.
Never miss a local story.
“All we’re doing is adding a bureaucratic function to an already stressed system to increase the lines and send more people to the optometrist’s office,” Shwedo said.
The issue will surface Wednesday afternoon at the State House, when a House panel begins hearing testimony on the proposal.
Its origin stems from the Legislature’s passage of Real ID legislation last year, meant to bring S.C. driver’s licenses in line with federal security standards. Shwedo asked lawmakers writing the bill to streamline that transition – which has led to hours-long wait times in other states – by removing the eye-exam requirement.
They did, making South Carolina one of 12 states, plus Washington D.C., that don’t require vision screening when renewing a license.
But some lawmakers – who say they didn’t have a chance last year to change the Real ID bill – want to walk back that part of the new law.
“A core function of state government is to ensure the public safety,” said state Rep. Jason Elliott, R-Greenville, the lead sponsor of this year’s eye-exam bill. “A critical and important and necessary part of safely driving a vehicle is being able to see.”
Shwedo does not buy that argument.
He says other states have eliminated the vision screenings and not seen an uptick in car accidents. Anyone who can see well enough to fill out Motor Vehicles’ license forms easily could pass the agency’s in-house eye exam, he said.
“My most important job is to ensure that anything we do does not increase the accident rate,” said Shwedo, who was put in charge of Motor Vehicles by former Gov. Nikki Haley in 2011. “But none of the data that we saw indicated that there was going to be any increase in accident rates.”
Shwedo says requiring the eye exam would invalidate the 1.1 million online applications the Motor Vehicles has received for new Real ID licenses. Those people would have to come to a Motor Vehicles office in person to complete an eye test, causing lines to swell, he said.
However, Elliott said he hopes to work out a compromise that would allow online applicants to submit an eye doctor’s approval in order to renew a license.
The exams are important, according to the S.C. Optometric Physicians Association, which helped draft this year’s bill.
Road signs are designed for drivers with at least 20/30 vision, and correct vision is crucial to driving, says Johndra McNeely, president of the association.
“I’m not sure that longer lines are more important than driver safety,” the Greenville physician said.
AAA Carolinas also is behind the bill.
“It’s really a mild inconvenience for motorists, and it makes our roads safer,” spokeswoman Tiffany Wright said. “A lot of times when people go to the DMV, that’s really the first time people realize they have a problem with their eyes. If you’re not getting your eyes checked, you’re not aware.”
Lawmakers might have reinstalled the eye-exam requirement last year, Elliott said.
But House leaders – feeling pressure to upgrade the state’s licenses before S.C. residents could be turned away from airports or federal buildings – asked the Real ID bill be voted on without amendments that could slow the process down.
The Real ID bill’s chief sponsor, state Rep. Mark Willis, R-Greenville, says dropping the eye exam was the right move. “This will streamline the whole process.”