Terrifying. That is the only way to describe driving a car blindfolded.
Before I got into the car at Donington Park to take part in the Blind Drive event, organised by Guide Dogs, I hadn’t given too much thought as to what it would actually be like. I’ve been driving for 15 years and was fairly confident this would be no big deal.
The annual event is a chance for visually impaired people to get behind the wheel of a car and experience driving for the first time. And is also a chance for others to step into the shoes of those who are blind or partially sighted, while raising money for Guide Dogs UK at the same time.
Around 80 people took part in the Blind Drive on Saturday, some came from as far away as Kent.
Each participant is given verbal commands by a driving instructor from the passenger seat, who has volunteered their time for the event. My instructor is Glenn Tarly, who informs me to put both hands on the wheel and keep them in that position for the duration. He will tell me when to change gear, when to turn the wheel and when to hit the accelerator or brake. As soon as the blindfold is on there is a sense of uneasiness. Driving in the dark is a similar feeling to being on a theme park ride, the difference being you are in control this time.
Glenn asks if I want to go around the track twice, or three times. I confidently declare, ‘three’ as we pull off on the Heritage Loop at Donington Park Race Track. It doesn’t seem such a scary thought when you are driving at 10mph. My mind changes shortly afterwards when I find myself driving 50mph around what feels like sharp bends, sure that I would crash into something at any moment.
“I don’t like it, it’s horrible,” I declared shortly after setting off: “How fast am I going?”
At one point I even managed to stop the car completely following a moment of panic. Not being able to see or have any sense of where you are is daunting and disorientating and begins to give you an idea of what life must be like for those affected by sight loss. I ask Glenn if anyone has asked to stop the challenge half-way through, or crashed. He tells me that a car earlier in the day ended up in a bush.
During the event most people reach a maximum speed of between 60mph and 75mph. I manage 55mph but even that feels like we are going way too fast. Luckily, the three laps are over pretty quickly and I can breath a sigh of relief.
“Most people’s reaction is bewilderment’, Glenn tells me, ‘blind people are better at the driving.”
The youngest participant on the day was 11-year-old Lewis Hill-Smith, from Long Eaton, who plays for Erewash Football Club. He said: “I’m the only one old enough from the team to take part in the Blind Drive this year but I’d been really looking forward to it, and it was great to do something for our chosen charity.
“It obviously felt really weird because I’ve never driven a car before. It was a bit of a challenge because I didn’t even know what the pedals were for until I got in the front seat. Steering was easy though because the instructor was telling me exactly where to go and how much to turn the wheel. He was really friendly, so I felt confident.
“Taking part showed me what it’s like being blind or visually impaired, even for a little while and I’m sure it will spur me and the team on to raise more money for Guide Dogs. I think my friends will be a bit jealous I got to have a go first.”
The team, which plays in the Derby Junior Football League Under 11s, has chosen Guide Dogs as its charity of the year and hopes to raise £5,000 to sponsor a guide dog puppy in training.
Sophie Paul, 13, also of Long Eaton, took part in the event with her mum Allyson, 46. Sophie was the youngest person with a visual impairment to get behind the wheel.
The event raised more than £11,000 and saw 80 people attend.
Jo Berry, a fundraiser for Guide Dogs, said: “The Blind Drive is a great opportunity for visually impaired people to get behind the wheel of a car. A lot of them have lost their sight later in life and driving is one of the things that people miss. Once they lose their sight they become more housebound. For people who have been blind from birth it is something they have never done.”
Kevin Crompton, 44, has a hereditary sight condition meaning his vision has gradually deteriorated since birth. He now has just five per cent sight. He said: “It’s amazing really to get behind a wheel when you wouldn’t normally be able to do it. It gives you a sense of freedom.
“It gives people a brief understanding of how different it is for people with sight problems.”
Kelly France, engagement officer for Guide Dogs, said: “The Blind Drive participants were such fantastic ambassadors for Guide Dogs – it was great to witness them embrace the challenge. More people than ever before took part and we are thrilled to have raised so much money for Guide Dogs. The money will help us continue our life-changing work and make people aware that there is life after sight loss.
“There was a great atmosphere trackside and we’re pleased to be able to provide this opportunity. For some of the people who took part this is the first and only time that they will experience driving.”
More information can be found at guidedogs.org.uk
Video by Rachel Hobday.