Leadership involves finding a parade and getting in front of it.

                                                                               - John Naisbitt


The Story of  Becoming the First Bioptic Driver in California

Dennis Kellehar, Ed.D


In September of 1970 I was attending graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley earning my Doctorate Degree in Education.  One of the courses I elected to take was entitled “The History of Optometry” taught by Dr. Monroe Hirsch. 

At the conclusion of the first class, Dr Hirsch approached me recognizing that I had albinism and asked if I had visited the Low Vision Clinic at the School of Optometry.  Upon learning that I had not, he introduced me to Dr. Edwin Mehr, the Low Vision Clinic Director who invited me to make an appointment which I did immediately. 

At my appointment in the Low Vision Clinic on October 9, 1970, Dr. Mehr asked me what I wanted to do that I was prevented from doing because of my low vision.  Without hesitation I stated that I really wanted to drive a car expecting him and all the students present to laugh at my request.  To my amazement Dr. Mehr did not laugh but instead said “let’s do a low vision evaluation on you so we can determine what you are able to see.” 

Dr. Mehr placed a Designs for Vision 3.0X Galilean bioptic telescope into the trial frame and I proceeded to read all but two letters on the 20/30 line of the chart.  He then told me that Dr. Donald Korb from Boston Massachusetts published an article in August 1970 entitled “Preparing the Visually Handicapped Person for Motor Vehicle Operation” in the American Journal of Optometry and Archives of the American Academy of Optometry.  This article outlined the work Dr Korb was doing with his patients using the bioptic to enable them to drive in Massachusetts.

Dr. Mehr gave me a copy of Dr. Korb’s article to read and told me that to the best of his knowledge, no one in California had been licensed by our California Department of Motor Vehicles using a bioptic, but that based on my performance during the low vision exam on me, he believed I would be a good candidate.  I was ecstatic because all my life I had been told I would never drive.  If I could drive it would improve my quality of life dramatically and open all kinds of occupational possibilities that I otherwise would not have.

I contacted Dr. Korb who was also very encouraging and informative. I proposed to my graduate school advisor that I conduct my doctoral research on the impact of attitude and achievement level of low vision students who used a bioptic.   The School of Education approved my topic.  I then obtained funding for conducting the research  I simultaneously wrote a letter to the Director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles regarding Dr. Korb’s experience in Massachusetts and inquired if they would be willing to consider exploring licensing individuals with low vision using a bioptic.

On behalf of the DMV Director, I received a response from L W Bradley, Chief of the Driver Improvement Division of DMV proposing that I meet with Mr. Donald MacDonald, Oakland area manager of Driver Improvement. 

After I had spent several months becoming accustomed to using my bioptic under the training provided by the low vision clinic, Dr. Mehr and I met with Mr. MacDonald in the Oakland DMV Office on Friday February 5, 1971.  Dr. Mehr had prepared a vision report for DMV verifying my visual acuity, with and without the bioptic, stability of my visual etiology, visual fields, depth perception, color vision and fusion. 

After approximately a 30 minute interview with Mr. MacDonald he asked me to demonstrate for him my ability to use the bioptic.  I read the 20/30 targets using the Ortho-rater machine that DMV used for vision testing at that time. He then administered the written test and I passed that without difficulty.  Mr. MacDonald then asked who would teach me to drive if he granted me a learner’s permit.  I told him that the husband of one of the secretary’s at the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley was a retired driving instructor for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and was very interested in teaching me how to drive.  Mr. MacDonald then issued me a learners permit and told me to make an appointment with him when I was ready to take my driving test. 

I then went to a local car dealer and purchased a new 1971 Toyota Corolla so I could practice driving the vehicle in which I would be tested.  Dr. Mehr was amazed that I bought a car before I got my license.  My response was that there is great power in positive thinking not to mention that it provided a great financial incentive to me.

I then practiced with my driving instructor approximately two hours per day during the week for the next four weeks.  We drove in a variety of settings such as residential, suburban and urban areas, but mostly in downtown Berkeley and Oakland.  At the end of this time my instructor indicated that he thought I was ready to take the driving test.  I also drove on one occasion with Dr. Mehr who concurred that he believed I was prepared adequately for the test.

On Monday March 8, 1971 at 10:00 AM I met Mr. MacDonald and we went out for the road test.  It was more comprehensive than a routine road test.  It lasted about 45 minutes and involved driving through city streets in Oakland and Berkeley.  At the conclusion of the road test, Mr. MacDonald was satisfied that I could operate a motor vehicle safely, but because this was the first license issued by California DMV to a bioptic driver he issued me a limited term 2 year restricted license allowing me to drive during daylight hours only which is customary when a driver doesn’t meet the vision screen standard acuity of 20/40 with standard corrective lenses.  The words to adequately express my feelings of my supreme joy and pride to able to drive legally have always eluded me.

In May of 1971 I applied for and was hired as an itinerant teacher in Yolo County, a rural area where there was no public transportation.  This is the first of many jobs that I could not have obtained if I did not have a drivers license.  I conservatively estimate that I have driven an average of approximately 24,000 miles per year for the past 38.5 years since becoming licensed for a total of 924,000 miles.  This mileage for both employment and pleasure includes driving during both daylight and night in urban, suburban, rural, freeway, residential streets and mountain roads settings in sunny, cloudy, rainy, foggy and snowy weather.

The average California driver according to DMV drives approximately 15,000 miles annually and is involved in a driving incident, either a collision or receives a citation approximately every 3.5 years.  During my 38.5 years I have received 4 citations and been involved in 3 minor collisions none for  which I was determined to be at fault.  Dividing 38.5 years by my 7 driving incidents yields an involvement rate of 1 in every 5.5 years.  Since I drive about 1.6 times more miles each year than the average California driver which increases my exposure to be involved in driving incidents and considering I have a driving incident involvement of 64% of the average driver during this time period, I believe it is fair to state that I have compiled a superior driving record when compared with  the average California driver. I believe this demonstrates that persons can drive safely using a bioptic and do not pose an unreasonably high risk to the general population.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to many people who made this experience possible namely:  Dr. William Feinbloom, the developer of the bioptic telescope and founder of Designs for Vision, the manufacturer of the device; Dr. Donald Korb for his pioneering work in Massachusetts preparing persons with low vision for driving; Dr. Edwin Mehr of the University of California School of Optometry Low Vision Clinic for his on-going support and encouragement throughout the licensing process; Mr. Donald MacDonald, Oakland DMV Area Manager for Driver Improvement for his willingness to consider the bioptic as a unique opportunity for those with low vision to obtain a driver license if a candidate could demonstrate the ability to operate a motor vehicle safely. 

The impact of my being able to drive on my quality of life over the past 38.5 years is something I cannot adequately put into words especially when I consider the hundreds of other persons with low vision who became licensed after me with Bioptics in California and in numerous other states. California was only the third state behind New York and Massachusetts allowing the use of bioptics for driving. Now there are about 40 states that allow it. To me this legacy is my most significant lifetime contribution.

Dennis Kelleher, Ed.D.