I’ve always wanted to get in a car and take part in a blind driving experience. I’ve always been curious to know what it would be like to drive. Growing up I was always interested in cars having several Matchbox toy cars I would play with for hours on end. But, I knew, as I mention in my autobiography “From Blind Man to Ironman” by the time I could get a provisional driving licence my eyesight was so poor that I just knew I would be unable to learn to drive. By the time I was 17 I had made the decision that I wouldn’t even risk riding my BMX bike any more. It was simply too risky.
I’d learnt in recent years through friends and the odd email from a local charity for blind and partially sighted folk that there were opportunities to drive a car around a suitably traffic free areas such as an airfield. Due to my hectic work and triathlon competition commitments over the last decade I didn’t really give it a second thought. Not until more recently when I mentioned the idea to a couple of friends. One of these friends, Mike Reynolds, got to work and found an “I Can Experience” Super Car driving experience for Blind people. By some happy coincidence the date of the driving experience fell on my 48th birthday, 3 November 2017. Perfect. All I needed to do was to register and book the day off work. Oh yes, and, choose the car I was going to drive.
Friday 3 November soon crept up on me. Noooo! I was now 48. Just a number I keep telling myself. Good job I can’t look at myself in the mirror! I was very fortunate that my good friends Mike and Abby drove me down to Oxford. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to fulfill one of my long standing dreams.
Before heading down to Oxford, I had been given a choice of 6 Super Cars I could drive:
Aston Martin DB9
Ford Mustang 1967 Classic
I always fancied driving a Porsche, probably the result of watching too many James Bond Movies! So, it was a no brainer.
Before the Blind Driving Experience
Abby, Mike and I drove down on Friday morning stopping off at a service station for a quick bite to eat. We had a cheeky McDonalds. Not had a Mac meal for quite some time and what the heck it was my birthday. We arrived at the ex RAF airfield by 1.15 pm. Bang on time. Unfortunately the organisers were running a little behind due to very bad fog that morning. I was due to drive around 2 pm but was assured that the delay wouldn’t be for too long, perhaps 15 minutes or so. We had our briefing from one of the officials who took us through some safety points such as “James is your driver. Now, if he says that you can accelerate into the corners then don’t worry. He knows what he is doing.” Yep, I liked the sound of that.
Before I was led out to the Porsche, I got in to conversation with another visually impaired guy. He told me that he had the same eye condition as me, retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). He seemed as though he was in his late 30s or possibly early 40s. But his sight loss started around 4 years ago. He still had a good degree of sight but was now unable to drive. He seemed pretty impressed that this was my first ever driving experience, not having driven before. He said that he really missed driving, which I completely got. I think it’s one of those things which must be pretty frustrating if you have once driven and are no longer able to do so. Having that independence taken away from you takes a lot of getting used to. Although, having said all that, Chris, the guy I was chatting to, seemed a pretty positive and sound individual.
It was soon my turn. As my name was called out the adrenaline started to pump through my veins. I was guided out of the building we were congregated in out on to the airfield. Mike opened the car door for me and I went to sit down, except that I was trying to get in to the car the wrong way round. I was so used to sitting in the passenger seat I became disoriented. “Oh, I have to face the other way, of course! I need to sit on the right hand side where the steering wheel is.”
I lowered myself down into the leather seat which was pretty comfortable. My instructor’s name was James. I didn’t ask his surname but imagined it was Hunt or something cool befitting someone who drives fast cars for a living. James adjusted the seat so that my legs could reach the pedals. The guy who had been in the car before me clearly had longer legs than me, which isn’t unusual as I am smaller than the average bloke.
Left Hand Turns
James informed me that I only needed to worry about the brake and accelerator pedals as the car was an automatic. He told me that he would talk me through everything, but the most important thing to remember was that when he said “to me” I should turn the steering wheel in his direction (sitting to my left). Most of the turns were going to be to the left as we were going around a circuit. He told me to put my foot on the brake as he turned the ignition and the engine started to purr. I had my hands on the leather steering wheel as James asked me to release the brake. The car started to roll forward and I remember having a huge grin on my face.
“To me.” James said and repeated again. I turned the wheel towards him. I was really driving this car! Wow, how fantastic. As we continued James told me to “tickle the throttle.” I lightly touched the accelerator and the car gently picked up speed.
As we reached a straight, James told me to “Completely open up the throttle…go on really give it all you got!” I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing but I did as I was told. I really felt the car lurch forward as I was pushed back in to my seat. This was utterly exhilarating! It wasn’t long before James told me to hit the brakes “Brake now…now!!” I broke hard and then turned the wheel again to the left. We must have done around 4 or 5 laps and I was beginning to feel sick. This was hardly surprising as the constant acceleration and braking and turning of the car was giving me motion sickness. That, and combined with the fact that I had to fully concentrate on the instructions I was being given.
I normally (you’d be glad to hear), very normally sit in the passenger seat jabbering away about all sorts of stuff while the driver concentrated on the driving and navigating. However, the tables had been turned and now I was in control, well, kind of. When James eventually told me that we were turning in to stop I was secretly glad as I needed to get out and get some fresh air.
When I got out Mike asked me how did it go. I remember saying that it was great and amazing but that I did feel a little sick! In retrospect I have to say it was an incredible experience, one I would definitely repeat. Maybe next time I will choose a different car and pop a couple of travel sickness tablets.
Massive thanks to my lovely friends Abby and Mike for taking me down and the guys at the ICan Experience for making it such a memorable blind driving experience.