Some years ago I was driving down a road with Kenny Roberts. At that point Roberts was at the height of his career as an American racer and about to go to Europe and prove he was the best rider in the world.
Roberts' two-seat Mercedes was traveling in excess of 100 mph on a deserted two-lane road when he glanced at the speedometer and drawled, "This car is so smooth and quiet that you'd never know it was going that fast, but that CHPie probably wouldn't like it." As he lifted his foot slightly and the car gradually began to slow, I squinted down the road ahead trying to see the police presence he'd indicated. Although my eye-care specialist said my vision corrected to 20/20, I had to strain to make out the speck that must have been the police car Roberts had identified. I couldn't even be sure it was a car for a few more seconds. It was almost a minute before I had any visual clue it was a police cruiser, even though we were hurtling toward each other at a closing speed that averaged better than 150 mph. Roberts had seen the car long before I could, and he had identified it not only as a police car but as a CHP vehicle. He had so much time to reduce his speed he didn't even need to release the throttle completely to get down to the 55-mph limit well before he was in danger of having his speed clocked.
Some time later, when asked which physical characteristics made him such a great rider, Roberts said he didn't think his reactions or coordination were anything special, but he did possess exceptional eyesight. This advantage helped him beat the rest of the world's best motorcycle riders.
If anything, vision is more important for a street rider than it is for a racer, who is dealing with a controlled, familiar environment. Yet motorcyclists seem just as lackadaisical about their vision as automobile drivers. I see dirty and scratched face shields, goggles and glasses, and tall windshields that obscure vision with smudges or surface defects.
Since we don't always recognize deteriorating vision, annual eye exams are important. In my twenties, I always assumed my vision was acceptable until I had an eye exam and got glasses. I was near-sighted in one eye and had astigmatism in the other. Glasses were a revelation. Suddenly everything, especially motorcycling, was easier. Hard contacts improved my vision further, but they did not work for me in the motorcycling environment, where wind and grit dried out and invaded my eyes. Soft contacts were the solution to those problems. They also eliminated the limitations, distortion and reflections that made my vision deteriorate with glasses, especially at night.
Contacts also eliminated another problem I encountered while riding in the rain. Water that got inside my helmet coated the inside and outside of my glasses in addition to the inside and outside of my face shield. In other words, glasses added two more layers of water droplets to my field of vision. Although current full-face helmets seal out rain pretty effectively, some moisture still sneaks in or gains entry when you open the shield. Goggles also let some mist in.
With soft contacts, I have good vision quality without the distortion of glasses. I even get it at the edges of my field of view, where glasses don't cover. The reflection that glasses (even those with antiglare coatings) presented at night is gone, and there seems to be less loss of light than with glasses. Dust is no more troublesome than without contacts. The only drawback is they sometimes get sticky when my eyes are dry. Pulling them out and rewetting solves the problem, though drinking a lot of water also helps.
Of course, advancing age hasn't improved the capabilities of my eyes. But we live in an era where technology is almost keeping pace with the deterioration of our bodies. The latest innovation in vision improvement is eye surgery, and I'm contemplating it. Other motorcyclists who have had it done rave about the results. (Of course, people are apt to rave about anything they have spent a large amount of money on.) But I hear tales of the folks who suffer from halos in their vision at night. But I am happy to wait. The technology is improving, and my eyes continue to change, so any surgery will presumably be more beneficial later. I also have to convince myself laser eye surgery is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
One of the attractions of full-face helmets for me is they provide such effective eye protection, shielding your eyes not only from debris and bugs but from most of the wind as well. Top-shelf helmets typically have shields with good optics and a scratch-resistant construction. In fact, the Arai and Shoei face shield optics work better for me than most expensive sunglasses. I tend to avoid sunglasses both because of that and the degradation of vision another layer of plasict creates. I prefer tinted shields (which provide UV protection). On the Shoei RF900 I favor, I can quickly change shields without removing the helmet, which makes changes and cleaning easy.
A clean shield is essential. I carry a clean, soft cloth to buff my face shield. With a small container of cleaner (Lenscrafters glasses cleaner, plastic polish or Pledge), I can remove bugs and grime anywhere. A quick roadside stop can remove the mung thrown off that truck I was following. Soap and water also work. The trick is to wet the shield down first and give it a minute to soak. You can do this with the cleaning solution or simply with a wet rag draped over the shield. This floats some particles off the shield and softens dried bugs. A clean rag is essential, since you don't want to scratch the shield. If you fold a washcloth-size rag twice and use each surface once, you avoid rubbing a grain of sand across your shield. Do not use those gas station paper towels, which can scratch.
Whatever form of eye protection you use, keep it clean and dispose of it when it becomes scratched. Although the shields for modern helmets resist damage impressively, they are expensive to replace. It is worth it, however
We frequently recommend cutting down your windshield. Although this might be helpful if the windshield is damaged, or if you're looking to customize your bike, the primary reason for cutting down a windscreen is to clear your line of vision. Your bike's windshield should be low enough that you can comfortably see the road over it. This will still provide you with wind protection comparable with a windshield that extends above your eye level (though your passenger may notice a difference). And, it will make your bike much safer to ride -- it gets any distortion out of your line of sight and it keeps obscurations like exploded bugs and scratches from hindering your view. See the story in the Tech section of MotorcycleCruiser.com for info on how to cut your windshield down.
The greatest value of a windshield that doesn't extend through your view of the road is apparent on rainy days and even more so on rainy nights. Rain turns a windshield into a translucent curtain. If you can't comfortably see over it, you are in serious trouble. I get a couple of queries a year from riders asking if anyone makes windshield wipers for bikes. Besides being impractical for plastic, windshield wipers would have to operate on both sides of a motorcycle windshield. You can solve this problem by cutting the windshield down. It amazes me that some motorcycle manufacturers' attorneys let them put windshields on bikes that are too tall for most riders.
The same cleaning procedures previously discussed for face shields apply to windshields, especially the warning about paper towels.
Sight is a very complex process, and I don't claim to be an expert. However, subtle changes can alert you that something else is amiss. The intoxicated riders in our story about adventures in alcohol all noted vision problems. When I get tired, my peripheral vision deteriorates, serving as a warning that it's time to park. You can experience similar visual signs when you have absorbed too much carbon monoxide or are becoming oxygen deprived (which might happen to a flatlander riding in the Rockies or Sierras). In the latter case, you should point your bike downhill immediately. Prescription or other drugs frequently affect vision. If you are having trouble distinguishing between green and blue, the Viagra is kicking in and I have to wonder why you are riding your bike.
Changes in vision, whether short- or long-term, are warnings of physiological changes you should heed. They also warn that your ability to ride is probably impaired. The trick is to be aware of them.
Your reward for taking the time to get good, up-to-date prescription eyewear, reducing the number of layers you must look through and eliminating anything that degrades your view of the road is heightened control and confidence. Everything you do on a motorcycle is based on what you see. If you have earlier warning of the oil at the intersection where you must brake, if you see the subtle movements of a driver's head indicating a direction change, if you observe the thin layer of sand at the entrance to a corner well before you get there, if you spot the deer in the bushes 100 yards sooner, you will be able to deal with them more easily. If you see better, you will have more information earlier, make better decisions and have fewer surprises.
You probably won't be able to see quite as well as Kenny Roberts, but you might get fewer tickets than you do now.