PURPOSE: To identify risk factors for the development of high-risk proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR) and for the development of severe visual loss or vitrectomy (SVLV) in eyes assigned to deferral of photocoagulation in the Early Treatment Diabetic Retinopathy Study (ETDRS). METHODS: Multivariable Cox models were constructed to evaluate the strength and statistical significance of baseline risk factors for development of high-risk PDR and of SVLV. RESULTS: The baseline characteristics identified as risk factors for high-risk PDR were increased severity of retinopathy, decreased visual acuity (or increased extent of macular edema), higher glycosylated hemoglobin, history of diabetic neuropathy, lower hematocrit, elevated triglycerides, lower serum albumin, and persons with mild to moderate nonproliferative retinopathy, younger age (or type 1 diabetes). The predominant risk factor for development of SVLV was the prior development of high-risk PDR. The only other clearly significant factor was decreased visual acuity at baseline. In the eyes that developed SVLV before high-risk proliferative retinopathy was observed, baseline risk factors were decreased visual acuity (or increased extent of macular edema), older age (or type 2 diabetes), and female gender. CONCLUSIONS: These analyses supported the view that the retinopathy-inhibiting effect of better glycemic control extends across all ages, both diabetes types, and all stages of retinopathy up to and including the severe nonproliferative and early proliferative stages and the possibility that reducing elevated blood lipids and treating anemia slow the progression of retinopathy.