South Carolina law says drivers can be fined or have their licenses suspended if they don't have their eyes checked every five years.
But the rule has never been enforced, says Department of Motor Vehicles executive director Kevin Schwedo.
Many people don't even know it exists, especially after a law passed in 2003 allowed most drivers to wait 10 years before renewing their licenses, instead of every five years. That leaves many drivers due for an eye exam before their licenses expire.
To eliminate the confusion, the S.C. Senate Transportation Committee has proposed scraping the part of the law that penalizes drivers who don't have their eyes checked every five years, effectively making eye exams a requirement every 10 years. The full Senate has approved the proposal.
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The five-year rule took effect before Schwedo became DMV executive director, but neither he nor his predecessor has enforced it, he told the Transportation Committee recently.
"If I did that, I'd probably have gotten fired. I'd probably have death threats in my hand. And it would not be the right thing to do," Schwedo said in an interview. "There would be a lot of people with a lot less change in their pockets."
The rule now on the books says drivers must mail a certificate from an eye doctor to the DMV or appear in person at a DMV office for a vision test every five years, Schwedo said. Those who don't can be fined and have their licenses suspended, leading to a $200 reinstatement fee.
(Different rules apply to drivers over age 65. They must renew their licenses every five years, rather than every 10 years, and they get a vision test at the same time.)
Optometrists, including members of the S.C. Optometric Physicians Association, disagree that lengthening the time between eye exams is a good idea.
Dr. Douglas Black of Darling Eye Center in Bluffton said it's "obvious that vision can change a lot" over 10 years.
"If you look at it from a public-safety standpoint, you don't want people out there driving who don't meet the standard for driving," he said.
According to Dr. Emily LaSalle of Eye Care One in Beaufort, vision can change in just six months.
Enforcement of the law should be the priority, Black said. He added that some patients only come to his office for eye exams when they have to renew their licenses, and only then can he catch problems that might have gone undiagnosed.
"It's only putting public safety in jeopardy by enacting a change like this," he said.
Schwedo said no major concerns about visually impaired drivers have cropped up since South Carolina extended the time for renewing licenses from five to 10 years.
"I'm not getting any feedback that we have significant problems with unqualified drivers," he said.
The House will have to approve the bill that includes the Senate's proposal on eye exams for the change to become law.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/IPBG_Allison.