Many South Carolina drivers are violating the law and should have their licenses suspended but don’t know it.
And the executive director of the state Department of Motor Vehicles says he won’t take action against them because it would create a public outcry.
At issue are eye tests, which the law requires drivers to take each five years at DMV or at a private doctor.
The problem is that the law now allows drivers to wait 10 years before renewing their license.
So many drivers wait until their license is up before paying attention to how well they can see, or notifying the state about their vision.
“I am required to suspend your license at the five-year mark if you haven’t come to DMV and either taken an eye test or bring me a doctor’s eye test,” Kevin Shwedo, DMV’s executive director, told the Senate Transportation Committee recently.
“I haven’t suspended a single license because you guys would fire me. But right now, that prevents me from renewing licenses online as soon as we hit the five-year mark.”
Shwedo said the eye-exam requirement, which he said was created when lawmakers extended license terms to 10 years, amounts to a “disconnect in the law.”
That law states that during the fifth year of a 10-year license, the licensee must mail DMV a certificate from an eye doctor or appear in person at DMV for a vision screening test and that vision screenings are required for all persons before having their license renewed.
If the licensee fails to submit an eye-exam certificate from a doctor or to appear for a vision test within five years, “the licensee must be fined $50,” the law states. The fine can be waived if the licensee is tested within 90 days of the five-year mark, according to the law.
Those 65 or older must renew their licenses each five years.
While some drivers said they thought DMV should send out reminders about the eye exam, Shwedo said budget constraints keep him from doing so.
“When you take a look about what you are talking about, and I’m operating on the edge, I just can’t afford to do it,” he told senators.
Not following the law
Shwedo said that he knows many drivers aren’t following the law.
“I know there are a large number of people in this state who have a driver’s license they’ve had for over five years,” he said.
But he said he isn’t suspending drivers over the issue and neither did his predecessor at DMV.
Drivers said they support enforcing the vision test requirement at the five-year mark, even though none were aware of the requirement.
“I think it’s probably good that it’s enforced because vision does change,” said Celeste Hernandez, 35, of Greenville. “Mine has gotten worse over the years and then gotten better. Every five years, I don’t think it’s too much to ask.”
Darryl Hales, 47, of Piedmont, said he thinks everybody should be checked each five years. And he recommends having a system where people can come straight in for an eye check and not go through the main line, or get a certificate from a doctor, optometrist or qualified nurse (like those in school systems for teachers) verifying the check was done.
“Just get the DMV out of it — the lines the hassles — or have a dedicated station within DMV,” he said.
Shwedo said he would like lawmakers to address the issue.
But many lawmakers until recently didn’t know there was a problem.
Lawmakers blind to problem
“I am the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and I didn’t know about it until it was pointed out by the director of the DMV,” said Sen. Larry Grooms, a Berkeley County Republican.
“I imagine there are a lot of South Carolinians who are now driving the past five years who have not sent in an eye exam to the DMV. If they were to strictly enforce this, that would mean a lot of people who went through a road check would all of sudden find themselves on the way to lock-up and we certainly don’t want that.”
Grooms, in fact, said he hasn’t had an eye test as required by law. And several members of his committee said they hadn’t either when Shwedo told them what was required.
“Just bring a wagon,” quipped Sen. Joel Lourie, a Richland Democrat.
How to fix the issue depends on which lawmaker you ask.
Grooms said he wants the Legislature to extend the eye-exam requirement to 10 years to coincide with license renewal.
“This late in the legislative session, I’m not sure what will happen,” he said. “But I’m going to go ahead and push for a 10-year eye exam.”
Sen. John Scott, a Richland County Democrat and member of Grooms’ committee, said he thinks the Legislature should roll back license renewal to every five years to coincide with the eye requirement.
Scott said until lawmakers required the eye exam each five years it wasn’t a problem.
Now he said the state should renew each five years and when drivers arrive at DMV, “Let them look through the machine. If they need to get an eye exam or get glasses, then they get glasses and then come back.”
He said it is unfair to force people to get an eye exam and people aren’t going to remember to get their eyes checked halfway through their license term.
Testing each five years, he said, would be safer for all motorists.
Web portal for eye doctors
Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he thinks one solution would be for DMV to create a Web portal for optometrists to use to send in eye-exam information so that drivers who regularly get their vision checked anyway, such as those who wear glasses, would have their data on file and wouldn’t need to go to DMV.
“There’s a way to do that,” he said.
Shwedo said software could be written but he hesitates to begin such a process because of the expense involved unless it proves to be used by many.
For their part, optometrists say waiting 10 years or more between eye exams isn’t a good idea.
“Anytime you look at lengthening that requirement, there’s a lot more time for things to go wrong with someone’s vision or the health of someone’s eyes,” said Dr. Melissa Wood, president of the South Carolina Optometric Physicians Association.
“From year to year, people can have changes in their vision for various reasons, whether it is due to diabetes, glaucoma or different eye diseases. Ten years is a long way to go.”
Wood said she understands legislators’ focus on efficiency, but physicians “want to be sure we are keeping people safe and that people have the eyesight to drive.”
Dr. Sam Garrett, a Greenville optometrist, said he also would discourage lawmakers from lengthening the time between eye exams.
“With young people, if their nearsightedness changes, then their vision can change,” he said. “With older people, they get cataracts, they get retinal problems. Their vision can change in as little as six months.”
He said he’s not offering his opinion to pad his pocket. In fact, he said, he restricts the driving of some patients because of vision problems.
He said the state used to require testing every two years before it was changed to five years.
“I don’t think that is excessive,” he said of the five-year requirement. “I really don’t.”
Shwedo said he would like to be able to have drivers renew licenses online to further reduce lines at DMV offices. But he said that will depend on how lawmakers rewrite the law.
He said some states allow licenses to be renewed indefinitely. Others, to comply with federal Real ID requirements, have a maximum of eight years between license renewals, he said.
Alicia Wardlaw, 23, of Greenville, said she thinks the law should be enforced.
“Someone’s life could be at risk because someone didn’t see a sign or something like that,” she said. “Some people might get mad, but in the end they’re still going to do what they have to do to keep their license.”
Tyrus Clark, 41, of Simpsonville, said he thinks the eye-exam requirement should match the renewal period.
“There’s no way to hold that standard,” he said. “It seems incongruent.”