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Should New Yorkers be able to see in order to drive?

There's only one right answer to that question, just as there's only one real way to find out if prospective motorists can see -- give them an eye test.

That's what the Republican-controlled State Senate -- hardly a bunch of bureaucracy lovers -- wanted to do with a sensible bill to require basic vision exams as part of the driver's license-renewal process.

The Assembly went along, and the bill passed the Legislature. But, unfortunately, Gov. Pataki has now vetoed it.

Pataki, citing a $2 million cost, called it an "unfunded mandate" on the Department of Motor Vehicles and said it was at odds with his "commitment to streamline government."

New York is hardly alone in wanting to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy. Yet Pataki himself notes that only 12 other states use the "self-certification" process New York began in 1994 that has the DMV simply take a driver's word, in mail-in license renewals, that he or she can see well enough to get behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, if the driver is wrong, the state -- and whoever the driver hits in an accident -- won't find out until it's too late.

While Pataki says a higher percentage of licenses have corrective-lens restrictions under self-certification than as a result of eye tests at the DMV, Sen. Norman Levy -- sponsor of the vetoed bill -- pointed to studies showing that eye tests correlated with a lower risk of elderly drivers being in fatal crashes.

Telling an unwilling elderly driver it's time to let someone else take the wheel -- for his or her own safety as well as that of others -- is one of the most difficult tasks concerned family members can face. A mandatory eye test when renewing a license is one way the state could help with that sensitive decision.

But mandatory eye tests don't safeguard just the elderly. No one whose vision won't pass muster should be allowed behind the wheel, and periodic eye exams are the only way to find out.

The DMV does have a Low Vision Program in which 13,500 drivers who can't pass the standard 2 0/4 0 vision test given in the DMV office must see an eye-care specialist and get certification that they're capable of driving.

But many New Yorkers probably know someone now driving who shouldn't be because they can't see much more than whether it's dark out or light. The fact that these drivers still have licenses raises serious questions about the state's ability to screen them out, Pataki's confidence notwithstanding. And how will the state catch drivers whose vision deteriorates in the future if it no longer requires testing while allowing them to renew by mail?

Cutting bureaucracy is all well and good -- until after a plane crashes or food kills because government didn't safeguard the public. Driving falls into the same category.

Pataki left open the possibility of taking another look at the issue if conditions warrant it. But New Yorkers shouldn't have to wait until more people get hit before the state realizes that taking the word of near-blind drivers is the wrong way to streamline government.

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