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SHARON v. LARSON

December 30, 1986

RALPH SHARON, et al.
v.
DR. THOMAS LARSON, et al.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LORD

 This is a class action challenging a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation regulation that prohibits the use of bioptic lenses *fn1" to satisfy the minimum visual acuity standard for obtaining a driving license. Plaintiffs claim that the challenged regulation discriminates against the handicapped, in violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794, and denies class members their fourteenth amendment rights to equal protection and due process. After a non-jury trial and extensive submissions, I have made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

 FINDINGS OF FACT

 1. Pursuant to authority granted by the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code ("Code"), the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ("Department") adopted certain physical and mental standards that govern the licensing of drivers in Pennsylvania. These standards appear at 67 Pa. Code § 83.1-83.5 (1986).

 2. These standards were formulated by the Department's Medical Advisory Board, which is composed of thirteen members, including at least eight medical professionals and one ophthalmologist and one optometrist. 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1517 (Purdon 1977 & Supp. 1986).

 3. Visual acuity, as used in this case, is measured by means of a conventional eye-chart. The applicant is asked to identify letters on a chart located twenty feet away from him. If the applicant can read all the letters on a designated line that a normally sighted person could be expected to read at a distance of twenty feet, he is said to have "20/20" or normal vision. If, at a distance of twenty feet, the applicant is unable to identify the letters on the line designated 20/20, but can identify the larger letters on the 20/40 line, he is said to have 20/40 vision. The 20/40 line is so named because persons with normal 20/20 vision would be expected to be able to identify the letters on that line at a distance of forty feet. Similarly, individuals with 20/60, 20/70 and 20/100 vision must be within twenty feet to identify letters of a size that normally sighted individuals would be expected to identify at sixty, seventy, and one hundred feet respectively.

 4. The relevant minimum vision standards for Pennsylvania drivers are as follows:

 
Section 83.3. Visual Standards.
 
(a) Driving without corrective lenses. A person with visual acuity of 20/40 or better combined vision may drive without corrective lenses, but if that person has less visual acuity than 20/40 in one eye, that eye shall be corrected to its best visual acuity.
 
(b) Driving with corrective lenses. A person with less visual acuity than 20/40 combined vision shall wear lenses correcting his vision to 20/40 or better while driving except that if correction to 20/40 is not possible, the person may drive in daylight hours only if one of the following are met:
 
(1) The combined vision has been corrected to 20/60 or better.
 
(2) Visual acuity is less than 20/60 combined vision but at least 20/70 combined vision with best correction, but only upon recommendation of a licensed optometrist or licensed physician who has equipment to properly evaluate visual acuity.
 
(c) Visual acuity of less than 20/70. A person with visual acuity of less than 20/70 combined vision with best correction is not authorized to drive . . . .
 
(e) Sight in one eye. A person may be adequately sighted in only one eye and still meet the requirements of this section; however, the person's driving privilege will be restricted to vehicles having mirrors so located as to reflect to the person a view of the highway for a distance of at least 200 feet to the rear.
 
(f) Telescopic lenses. Correction through the use of telescopic lenses shall not be acceptable for purposes of meeting acuity requirements.

 67 Pa. Code § 83.3 (1986).

 5. Plaintiff Ralph Sharon is a citizen of Pennsylvania who suffers from low vision and who wishes to obtain a driver's license.

 6. In January 1979, Sharon applied for a learner's permit in Pennsylvania. On February 27, 1979 that application was denied because he could not meet the Department's vision standards. The denial was confirmed by the Medical Advisory Board on June 19, 1979.

 7. According to the stipulated 1981 statement of Dr. Randall Jose, Sharon's visual acuity with the right eye was 20/120 and with the left eye was 20/300 using conventional corrective lenses. Sharon's best combined visual acuity using conventional lenses was 20/100, which does not meet Department standards. Sharon's visual acuity has been measured at slightly better than 20/20 in his right eye when using a telescopic lens.

 8. A bioptic lens consists of a miniature telescope mounted upon conventional corrective lenses. The telescope provides a magnified central field of between eight and twenty-two degrees. Images within this field appear larger and are therefore easier to resolve.

 9. Sharon represents a class of all those similarly situated: to wit, all those who cannot meet Pennsylvania's acuity requirements without using bioptic lenses but who can meet that standard if permitted to use such lenses.

 10. The use of bioptic lenses for the operation of motor vehicles is prohibited in many states. States that permit the use of bioptic lenses to meet acuity requirements and which have licensed drivers who wear such lenses include California, New York, Michigan and Massachusetts.

 11. The parties have stipulated into evidence several studies on the safety of low vision and bioptic drivers. The studies include:

 (a) The Burg studies. Dr. Albert Burg, of the Institute of Transportation and Traffic Engineering, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, compiled information on vision test performance, personal and driving habits and driving records for 17,769 California drivers. The study traced over 14,000 drivers for a three year period, and nearly 8,000 drivers for a six year period. Burg found "substantial, but not conclusive, evidence that static [visual] acuity . . . [is] related to driving record . . . ." Burg, Vision and Driving: A Report on Research, 13 Human Factors 79, 86 (1971).

 (b) The California study. A 1983 report prepared for the California Department of Motor Vehicles found that telescopic lens users had an accident rate of 12.10% as compared to an accident rate of 7.96% for the general driving population. In this study, the rate was adjusted to reflect the fact that drivers with telescopic lenses are typically male and younger than the general driving population. The difference ...


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