Hugh Reynolds

Governor Andrew Cuomo has done a lot of positive and far-sighted things his first year in office. Eliminating the safety provision that drivers take eye tests to renew their licenses was not one of them.

That the administration swiftly reversed course in the face of incredulous indignation from DMV offices across the state was to its credit, however messy.

This story, like a belch in a windstorm, was out and over before most people got a sniff. The new policy was contained in a widely ignored DMV press release on September 26. A few days later, orders and documents were issued from Albany to all local departments of motor-vehicle offices that drivers would no longer have to submit to eye tests — eye charts are posted behind every clerk’s window — in order to renew their licenses.

Cries of WTF were heard in county clerk’s office from Montauk to Lake Erie. “A lot of people were scared, appalled,” said Ulster deputy clerk Alice Lawlis. “This is a public-safety issue of the first order.”

But not everybody felt ill-served. “Some little old people didn’t want to take the test, anyway,” Lawlis reported.

The forms issued by state DMV allowed motorists to “self-certify” that their vision was at least 20-40, the minimum for licenses without corrective lenses. “And how does anyone know what their vision is?” Lawlis asked.

Lawlis and her boss, county clerk Nina Postupack, were convinced that what some considered the Magoo mandate was yet another revenue-grabber by the state to extract money from local government. Counties keep 12.5 percent of fees paid by those who renew in person. Do it by mail, with self-certification, and the cash-strapped state keeps it all.

On Monday, October 3, state senator John Bonacic, appearing on a local radio show, called the new policy “bad, bad law, a serious threat to public safety.” Bonacic, after informing listeners the Cuomo administration, not the legislature, had promulgated the new regulation, vowed repeal “will be at the top of our [legislative] agenda in January.”

He won’t have to worry. On September 30, state DMV commissioner Barbara Fiala had issued a press release rescinding the order and announcing the appointment of a study group “to ensure that New York’s drivers possess the vision acuity necessary for safe driving.”

Out in the boonies, we call that putting the cart before the horse, or to use another country metaphor closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. Hopefully, the state will contact those few drivers who were allowed to renew without eye tests and require them to read the fourth line from the top.

The spin the administration in Albany attempted to put on what had been a patently dangerous policy didn’t get very far. Let’s pray that Cuomo has learned his lesson.