Common Tread

Ask the doc: Issues with eyeglasses

Feb 01, 2017

Clear vision is critical for safe riding.

While the motorcycle industry has made great strides in helmet ventilation and increasing the number of face shields that accept a Pinlock system to virtually eliminate shield fogging, little seems to have been done for eyeglasses. It does not help to have a clear face shield and totally fogged eyeglass lenses. In fact, it is downright dangerous. Oh to see clearly!

As the average age of motorcyclists in the United States increases, the odds that the rider is sporting progressive lenses also increases. And progressive lens wearers have another problem to deal with when riding — visual frame distortion.

Even the most aerodynamic helmets suffer from some wind buffeting at speed (despite what Anthony tells you about his head checks). Every bike transmits some engine and road chatter to the rider. If you have sandwiched your eyeglass stems between your helmet and your head, your head and glasses will move up and down and somewhat side-to-side at speed. If you have progressive lenses, the lens is shaped to enable distance vision in the upper portion, mid-range vision in the middle, and close-up vision in the lower with gradations in between the three zones — hence, progressive. With transmitted motion, the image you have in front of you may appear to move up and down like going over a series of big bumps in your car. Somewhat manageable during the daytime, but a potential disaster at night. Now imagine that while fogged…

Clearing the fog

Let’s address the fogging issue first.  Fogging occurs when your hot breath meets your cooler eyeglass lenses. If you ride with a half or three-quarter helmet, you likely do not have this problem, since there is so much air flow. For those with full-face or modular helmets, either warming the lenses (not happening) or cooling your breath makes this issue go away. A common approach is to use the “city position” of your face shield to increase airflow and cool the temperature of gas reaching the lens. On the other hand, it does lead to a cold face, and if left widely open, especially in the absence of a windshield, leaves your face vulnerable to impacts from road debris, bugs, cigarette butts, etc. Not pleasant, especially at speed.  

Are there other fixes? Sure! A wide variety of lens wipes proclaim to conquer fogging. I have had modest success with all that I have tried; most wipe on, dry and then get buffed. The main downsides? Haloing of lights at night and of course, fogging. Some lenses come with anti-fogging coatings but they, too, have less success than desired with the temperature difference between your body (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and the outside air that cools your glasses (seemingly anything under 50 degrees). A host of other products, such as soap, shaving cream, and water-repellent sprays, have also been touted as anti-fog solutions. Some riders swear by them and others, well, not so much. The next step in fixing this issue is to control the flow of exhaled breath to your lenses.

Note the small ventilation holes at the tops of the spacer material on each side. Photo by Dr. Lewis Kaplan.

Some eyeglass companies offer frames that position the lenses further away from your face and come with a foam-like spacer that fills the gap between the frame and your face. The spacer generally provides some ventilation but not much, controlling what hits the inside of the eyeglass — and your eyes. The helmet's chin vent generally keeps the outside lens face lens clear. I ride with this arrangement from Wiley-X shown above. While it minimizes fogging for me, if it does fog, it clears much less slowly than my regular eyeglasses, even with the face shield fully open. Don't get me wrong, they are much better than plain glasses, and the lenses are ballistic, affording excellent eye protection.

Another approach is to use a breath deflector that covers your nose and mouth and directs gas away from your shield and lenses; these products work with full-face helmets but not modulars, as they must stick to the inside of the helmet. Some balaclavas may help, too, especially if they have a neoprene breath guard.

Spurgeon glasses
Then there's Spurgeon's approach to glasses: Buy goofy-colored sunglasses and always ride with the face shield open. This is not a recommendation. RevZilla photo.

Other options: Contact lenses and surgery

Perfection is, however, achievable! There are three options, two of which are surgical (I am a surgeon). The non-surgical option is contact lenses. This one is easy with many options, and the technology has advanced over the last two decades, making them well tolerated by most.

If putting things onto your eyeball is not for me you, then on to the surgical options. One is Lasik, which corrects distance vision really well, allowing you to ride without glasses. This is best for younger riders (generally under 50 years old) whose eyeball lenses remain somewhat flexible and are not on their way to cataract formation. So it's not an option for me. For those of us who are older, a different option has become popular: lens replacement, just like for cataracts. It is called a clear lens extraction, since there is no cataract (cataracts makes the lens cloudy). One eye gets a lens designed for distance and the other eye gets a lens designed for close vision. Sounds crazy, but your brain adjusts and rapidly learns to ignore the “wrong” eye. Presto! Three options that let you eliminate glasses and thus eliminate fogging.

But what about that moving visual frame if you desire to wear prescription lenses, or surgery is not an option for you? Changing from the progressive lens to your grandfather’s old-style bifocal lenses works wonders.

bifocal glasses
This picture clearly shows the bifocal lenses, instead of progressive lenses more common today. Photo by Dr. Lewis Kaplan.

Success lies in simplicity. The main lens is designed for distance vision with the half-moon cutout portion in the bottom supporting close vision. When the glasses and you move, it does not make your visual field cross transition zones leading to less change in your visual frame. If you run over a rough patch, you will still see some motion, but on a fairly level road, vision remains crisp and clear. The bifocal lets you look at your fuel gauge, GPS, and well, occasionally at least, your speedometer.

As you have guessed, this Ask the doc is really my story. Changing to a local environment control pair of glasses with a traditional bifocal has smoothed my road and demystified what lies along it.  While I am a surgeon, I am not yet ready to replace my eyeball lenses.

What about you? What solutions work well for you?