Disabled drivers

During our very recent stay in the Cochin/Ernakulam region of Kerala in the south of India, we encountered two drivers with disabilities.

The first was in central Ernakulam. He was the chauffeur working for a friend. His right arm was encased in surgical plaster of Paris from above his elbow to his finger tips. He drove well despite having only one functioning arm. Luckily for him, he was driving a car with automatic gear changing.

We met the second driver twice in picturesque Fort Cochin. He wore a surgical support collar around his neck. It was khaki in colour and matched his khaki autorickshaw driver’s uniform jacket.

The first time we were driven by him, we noticed his collar, but made no reference to it. The next time he stopped to pick us up, we asked him about the collar, guessing that he might have been involved in accident. We were not expecting his explanation.

The poor fellow related that when his wife had deserted him for reasons that he did not tell us, he had tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, his attempt failed because now his wife has returned to him.

All ‘aggro’ : my Allegro

I passed my Driving Test in 1982. Naturally, I wanted a car after that. A good friend, a dental colleague who was keen on motor cars, suggested quite sensibly that it would be best if my first car was not brand new. He felt that as I was an inexperienced driver, I was more likely to damage it. With his assistance, I chose a second-hand Austin Allegro, which looked in good condition and had not done a huge mileage. Neither he nor I would have guessed what a challenge this vehicle would prove to be.

 

allegro 1

Austin Allegro [source: Wikipedia]

All went well at first. After a few weeks, I was driving along a motorway between the Medway Towns, where I worked, and London when suddenly the car lost power. I managed to steer the Allegro to the hard shoulder. The engine was not working. I turned the ignition key and the engine sprung back into life. I continued to London uneventfully.

The problem, the engine’s spontaneous and unexpected switching off, occurred on a number of other motorways and main roads, sometimes at night. I returned to the garage where I had bought the car, and their mechanics checked the car thoroughly (so they said). They could find nothing wrong. Reassured, I continued using it, but the same problem recurred regularly. I got to a point where I used to drive along the motorway with my hand holding the ignition key in the start position, so that the motor could not turn off.

After a few months in rented accommodation, I decided to buy a house when I discovered that the monthly mortgage repayments were the same as my monthly rental payments. After looking at about nine properties, I chose one. Before moving in, I used to visit its soon to be former owners in order to settle details of the house sale. On one visit, I parked my Allegro in front of the driveway where two of the occupants’ cars were parked. When I was ready to leave, the Allegro would not start. The owner’s son, a man in his twenties, came out to look at the car. Within minutes, he discovered what the garage mechanics had missed. The lock into which the ignition key fitted was loose: it did not engage firmly in the ‘on’ position. So, when the car vibrated, the key could be thrown out of the ‘on’ position into an ‘off’ position.

When the boy’s father, who was taking an interest in the proceedings, saw what his son had discovered, he fetched a wire, and touched its two ends to a couple of places in the engine. Suddenly, there was a blue flash followed by a strange smell and some white smoke.

“Aw, now look what you’ve gawn and done, Dad,” said the son, “I reckon you’ve blown a fuse.”

Almost as quick as a flash, the young man said that he would run up the road to buy a new fuse, which he did. He inserted it, and then carefully started my car.

I continued using the car for a while. Soon after the fuse incident, the car began belching black smoke instead of the normal exhaust. Once again, I returned to the dealer, who had sold me the car. After I told him what was wrong, he said:

“Sounds like you’ll need a new engine, my friend.”

“But,” I protested, “I’ve only had the car for four months.”

“Such is life, young man.”

 

I took the car to another repair shop. This was run by a wizened old man. He looked at the engine, and said:

“I can do something about that smoke, but it won’t last long. My advice to you is to sell it as soon as I’ve mended it and before the problem returns and the engine burns out.”

I took this wise man’s advice. The local Volkswagen dealership were happy to take my Allegro as part payment for my brand-new Polo vehicle.

 

allegro 2

Volkswagen Polo [source: Wikipedia]

Soon after taking possession of the Polo, I visited my aunt and uncle in London. Their reaction to my new car gave away something of what they had secretly thought about me in the thirty years they had known me. After spending a few hours with them, they accompanied me to the road. I had not told them about my purchase. When they saw me unlocking my pristine Polo, my aunt said:

“Is that yours, Adam?”

“Yes.”

Then my uncle said:

“I never imagined you would have ever bought a new car. It’s the first normal thing you have ever done.”

Riding along in my automobile

I was just nineteen when I took my first driving lesson. I was staying in Harlow (Essex) doing my first holiday job (at Beecham’s pharmaceutical research laboratories). I used to have the lessons after work during the early evenings when there was little or no traffic on the roads.

DRIVING

Driving in Bavaria: my car in 1986

I found it very difficult to coordinate hands and feet, so that gear changing presented me with quite a challenge. I drove slowly, especially when approaching traffic signals when they were turning red.  I could not face the palaver of foot brake, handbrake, clutch, and gear synchronisation that was needed when stopping at a red signal. Occasionally I drove so slowly that the car almost stopped moving. After about six lessons, the instructor said to me:

“You are my first pupil whom I have had to ask to drive faster.”

A couple of lessons later, he told me sadly:

“You are going to take much longer to learn to drive than most other young people.”

I knew he was right, and we agreed not to have any more lessons.

Twelve years after my summer job in Harlow, I began practising dentistry in the Medway Towns (in north Kent). I took up the job there in April 1982. I was still unable to drive. I rented ‘digs’ near the practice. In the evenings after work, there was little in the way of public transport in the area apart from the railway that connects the three main centres of the Medway Towns. I decided that life in this part of the world would be very dull if I did not learn to drive.

One of the dental nurses in the practice recommended a driving instructor, Mr B. I decided to take an intensive course of driving lessons, paying for three or four hours a week. Mr B’s method of instruction suited me well. I learnt in a car with dual controls. My instructor, who sat in the passenger seat beside me, had a clutch and brake pedal that he could operate if necessary. Occasionally, he would operate them, and I would say to him:

“I was just about to brake when you operated your controls.”

Mr B would reply:

“If I need to use the dual controls, then I feel that you did not make the right decision in time.”

After about six weeks, Mr B considered that I was ready to take the Driving Test, which I booked. The test was scheduled for ten o’clock one weekday morning. The Test involved driving the examiner along local roads. During the drive, the candidate is asked to perform several prescribed procedures, such as: reversing around a corner; a hill start; an emergency stop; and parking the car. At the time of day when I took the Test in Gillingham, one of the Medway Towns, there was almost no other traffic on the roads. This made things easier for me. Also, I was able to anticipate when the examiner was going to ask me to perform this or that prescribed manoeuvre. I passed the Test, the last important exam I have ever taken. I attribute my success to two factors. One of them was Mr B’s superb tuition. The other was dentistry. Let me explain.

During the five years prior to my Driving Test, I studied dentistry. Many of the clinical procedures I learnt involved using the dental handpiece (drill). The speed at which the bur (drill bit) rotates is controlled by a foot pedal. Where and how the drill cuts is controlled by hand movements. I had learnt to drive a dental drill. Driving a car, with the feet/hand coordination it involves, became simple for me after my dental training.

Soon after getting my Driving Licence, I bought a second-hand car. On the first day, a Thursday, I drove it to and from the Savacentre, the local supermarket, three miles from my flat. On the Friday evening, I drove through the countryside to Faversham, which was twenty miles from where I lived. On the Saturday, after finishing my morning clinic, I set off for north London, sixty miles away. It was the first time I had driven on a motorway. That was not too bad but driving across the metropolis of London felt like a bad dream. I had never driven in heavy traffic before. By the time I had crossed south London and the River Thames, I had developed a severe headache. When I reached a major, congested traffic intersection in Camden Town, I felt like getting out of the car and abandoning it. Things reached rock bottom, when the driver of a car near to mine leant out of his window and yelled at me:

“Bloody Sunday driver.”

Late on the Sunday night, I set off to drive back to Kent. Being late, there was less traffic than there had been in London on the Saturday afternoon. I had planned to cross the river using the Blackwall Tunnel. However, I missed the turning for it and found myself on a dual-carriageway that led inexorably eastwards away from London. Every now and then the road crossed intersections on steeply humped fly-over bridges. I knew that eventually I would reach the Dartford Tunnel that passes beneath the Thames, but I was getting cold and lonely as I drove through a darkened industrial landscape and then through countryside that seemed featureless late at night.

I drove through the long tunnel beneath the Thames. When I reached the toll-booth on the Kent shore, I paid the toll to a man sitting in a lighted booth and thanked him. It was a relief to be able to talk to someone, even for a few seconds, after the lonely journey I had just made.

The next few journeys I made to London always resulted in me getting a headache, but eventually I began to enjoy driving. I enjoyed it so much that later on I drove several times from England to Hungary and farther afield to the former Yugoslavia, often on my own and enjoyed every minute of the journeys.

It’s enough to drive you around the Benz

Of my attempts to learn to drive a car, I will write on this subject at another occasion. Suffice it to say that by the summer of 1982, when I had been practising dentistry for several months, I passed the Driving Test at the age of thirty years. I began to enjoy driving and cars in general. I changed my car often. Over a period of eleven years while I practised in Kent, I possessed (in the following order): an Austin Allegro, a Volkswagen Polo, a Volvo 340, then two Volvo 240s, and then a Volvo 850. The last two cars I owned after those were Saabs.

 

MERC 2

 

Some time during my eleven year stay in Kent, I fancied owning a Mercedes Benz. In my mind, this make of car rated above all others. Apart from the company’s long heritage (it started in the late 1880s), the cars it produced were reputed to be strong, reliable, and very roadworthy. It is of interest to note that Adolf Hitler rode around in Mercedes cars. I suppose he must have known that the Mercedes in the company’s name was chosen because Mercedes was a daughter of Emil Jellinek (1853-1918), a motor manufacturing entrepreneur who created the Mercedes trade mark in 1901. Emil, the son of a rabbi, was married to Mercedes’ mother Rachel Goggmann Cenrobert, who was of French-Sephardi descent. Therefore, the car Hitler enjoyed was named after a Jewish woman. But I digress.

A new Mercedes Benz dealership opened close to the practice, where I worked. One lunchtime, I drove to the dealership to test drive a Mercedes estate car. A salesman drove me about a mile, and then let me take the wheel on the way back. At a certain stage, I needed to operate the handbrake. I looked for it in the usual place on the central console that separates the two front sets, but it was not there.

“Where is the handbrake?” I asked the salesman.

“I have no idea,” he replied, “I have never driven this model before.”

He thought for a minute, and said:

“Try that handle beside your left leg.”

He was right, but my confidence in him diminished.

When I had driven the car back to the dealership, I asked to be shown some pre-owned cars, as the new ones were way beyond my price-range.

Another digression seems appropriate at this point. Many years after visiting the Mercedes dealership, I hired a car at Heathrow Airport. It was an up to the minute luxurious Vauxhall estate car. A charming young Asian lady handed me the keys and told me where to find the vehicle. I sat in the driver’s seat and started the engine. Immediately, I noticed a warning light telling me that the handbrake was engaged. I looked for the handbrake. It was neither on the central console nor was there a handle near the foot pedals. I was flummoxed. I returned to the car hire office feeling rather foolish and described my problem to the young lady. She smiled before explaining that the handbrake was operated by a small button on the central console near the gear change stick. After returning to the car, I found the button, which was no bigger than the surface of a dice such as is used in board games. It was flush with the rest of the console and looked like a decoration.

 

MERC 1

 

I was quite taken with a greenish Mercedes saloon car, which was almost favourably priced, but still some way beyond my reach. The salesman opened the vehicle and invited me to sit in the driver’s seat.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Very nice,” I replied, “but I’m not so keen on that plastic trim on the central console around the gear stick.”

“Sir,” he exclaimed, affronted, “that’s not plastic. It’s highly polished wood trim. The very best. This is a Mercedes, you know.”

“Sorry,” I replied, not totally convinced, and continuing, “I like the car. Are you prepared to lower the price?”

“Oh no, sir, that is totally against our company policy. The price we offer is the only price. Our company does not haggle.”

Lunchtime was nearly over, so I said that I would think about the car and would let him know my decision soon.

Twenty-four hours later, I was eating my lunch in the practice when the telephone rung. One of my colleagues answered it and then handed me the receiver. It was the salesman, whom I met the day before.

“Mr Yamey,” he said, “I have good news for you. I have spoken with my manager, and he says that we can offer you the car for £1000 less.”

“Thank you,” I replied, “let me think about that.”

Even with the discount, the car was still beyond my means.

 

merc 3

 

Twenty-four hours later, two days after visiting the Mercedes dealership, I received another call from the salesman, again whilst I was eating lunch.

“I have more good news for you, My Yamey,” he began, “my manager has authorised a further thousand-pound reduction in the cost of the car you are interested in. That’s a discount of two thousand pounds. Makes the motor very reasonable, don’t you think?”

I told him that I was not sure about buying at that moment, and that I would get back to him if I changed my mind. I had by then decided that not only was the car too expensive even with the unexpected discounts from a firm that never offered discounts, but, also, I was actually happy with the car I already owned.