Image courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
What technology had the greatest impact in improving driver safety? No, it’s isn’t anti-lock brakes or power steering or even air bags. In fact, the most important device for ensuring a safe trip is the one that doesn’t even come as part of the standard equipment of any automobile. You can’t miss them—they’re right in front of your eyes. It’s your glasses.

The role of eyecare professionals in making roads safe for driving has rarely been recognized. But this fascinating history can now be traced 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 part in changing laws and improving driving vision technology.

American Optical released its first pair of eyeglasses optimized for driving back in 1904. But ensuring that drivers had adequate vision also required new technology for eyesight testing.

In the 1930s, American Optical took the lead in developing equipment suitable for use outside of a practitioner’s office. This new technology could be used both by Department of Motor Vehicles employees when people applied for a license, and also by police investigators who suspected that poor vision might have caused an accident.

They call some crime investigators private eyes. But in this instance, they really needed to investigate eyesight!

The American Optical Project-O-Chart, introduced in the late 1930s, was a breakthrough in driver vision screening. The screening unit weighed less than twenty pounds, could match natural light conditions with its built-in illumination, and varied its tests to prevent memorization of chart letters. Some states issued units to every highway patrol officer.

Image courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
When Iowa became the first state to use this technology as part of the drivers’ license application process, they found it improved the screening process dramatically. Previously the state had used standard letter cards to test vision, but these were readily available to the general public—and many applicants simply memorized the sequence of letters and passed despite serious vision impairments. The new AO technology prevented this, and other states soon jumped on the bandwagon.

American Optical also developed entire mobile optical units that could be used in areas or circumstances where people lacked access to eyecare professionals. The necessary elements of entire optical dispensary were compacted into two large suitcases—each weighing around 200 pounds, but suitable for transportation by plane, train or automobile.

These came equipped with more than 2,000 lenses and 600 eyeglass frames, along with downsized equipment for edging and fitting.

These innovations not only improved driving safety, but set the stage for later innovations in eyewear dispensing. The move to make equipment more compact eventually led to the rise of one-hour eyeglasses and greater access to vision care in underserved areas.

“The eyecare field still has an important role to play in expanding access and improving safety,” according to Zeiss vice president Karen Roberts. “We were creating cutting edge technologies for driving vision more than a century ago, and are doing the same today with our new Zeiss DriveSafe lenses. A lot has changed in autos over that time, but the most important driving safety technology is still your spectacles.”