Telescopes to aid low vision drivers

7 January 2016

Sharon Oberstein with Bioptic Spectacles (Credit UNSW)Bioptic telescopes, or spectacles which have a small device attached to greatly magnify long-distance vision, are a key tool in helping people with central vision impairment to drive. Unfortunately for some of the 180,000 Australians suffering from low vision, they’re not included in the standard guidelines for conditional driving licences in Australia. This can often impact the ability of somebody with low vision to maintain independence in activities of daily living, such as commuting to work.

Over the past four years 2015 Menzies Foundation Allied Health research scholar, Sharon Oberstein, has been working to address this by working with optometrists and driving regulators to understand their perceptions of people with central vision impairment when it comes to conditional licencing. A second element of her project was to develop and implement training programs that advise optometrists, rehabilitation driving specialists and patients how to use the glasses so they can be offered to their patients.

“Current technologies exist to help people with central vision loss on a day-to-day basis, however many of them are impractical to use while driving. Bioptic telescopes are a great option for some patients, however they are not widely used in Australia due to a lack of training programs.

“A big element of my research has been on creating these training frameworks for both optometrists and patients on how to use them”, Sharon said.

The training program developed involves patients using the glasses as a passenger first to get used to flicking between the normal and magnified vision “using the magnifier is a bit like looking in the rear view mirror – you want to do it for a moment to see what’s behind you but you don’t want to keep staring in it. It is important to continue to attend to the driving scene ahead.”

Once the patient is comfortable and able to manage that process, they can take the wheel and practice using them while driving.Bioptic spectacles (credit: UNSW)

Sharon’s research has shown that the training program combined with the glasses have resulted in drivers with central vision impairment seeing signs in better detail from further away – something crucial to improved road safety.

Unfortunately, there’s still a long way to go. “New guidelines about driving are being released this year, however bioptic telescopes aren’t included in the standard as approved glasses for conditional licences – patients still need to see an expert and get special approval to use them on the road,” Sharon said.

“My plan is to keep training people to use the glasses, and keep providing evidence to the motor vehicle authority and hopefully get them (the glasses) on the list of pre-approved devices for conditional licences.”

Sharon Oberstein received the 2015 Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Research Scholarship in the Allied Health Sciences. She is in the final year of her PhD at the University of New South Wales and recently published her initial research project in the journal ‘Clinical Experimental Optometry’. Sharon also presented at the 11th National Allied Health Conference in Melbourne in 2015.

Tags: Menzies Scholar Allied Health Research UNSW Optometry low vision