The sun smiled down on Sandown Raceway on the first Sunday of July, setting perfect conditions for The Lions Club of Warrandyte’s 22nd edition of In The Driver’s Seat.
This annual event gives visually impaired persons (VIPs) the opportunity to get behind the wheel and drive a few laps of the raceway, under the supervision of a qualified driving instructor.
In Victoria, drivers need to have a Visual Acuity of 6/12 which is measured by reading the letters on an eye chart positioned six metres away. For those who are visually impaired, the inability to read this chart means they are not legally able to drive.
For people who have passed their driving test, the loss of their licence can exacerbate their sense of loss of freedom.
In The Driver’s Seat at Sandown is therefore a high point on each participant’s calendar and each year, the event expands as new VIPs sign up and previous participants return to, once again, get behind the wheel.
John Pope, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in 2013; a rare, degenerative, inherited eye disease with symptoms which include reduced vision in low light and tunnel vision.
“I had been driving for about 40 years…I drove taxis for 20 years, I drove trucks, it was a big part of my life.”
John explained how a trip to the ophthalmologist, five years ago, had suddenly dissected an activity which was a big part of his life.
“The ophthalmologist asked me if my wife had driven me here, I said yes and she said ‘well she’s driving you home’ and that was it.”
Throughout the day, VIPs told their stories of how accidents and degenerative eye diseases had forced them out of the driver’s seat and one thing was clear, days such as this allow them to experience the pleasure of driving once again, something which they clearly miss and is why they keep coming back year after year.
“This is my third time here,” said John.
Ken Gunning stopped driving in 1983 due to his degrading eyesight and after hearing about the day, first came along in 2000.
Ken travels down from Ballarat each year to attend this event, so I asked him what compels him to come back year-after-year.
“The idea that I can have a drive, on my own, without being on the road doing something silly.
“[Out on the track] the speed doesn’t worry me; this afternoon I ended up going over 100kph but if I hadn’t it would not have been a problem — it is more about being in control of the car.”
Ken remembers busloads of VIPs coming in from Geelong, Castlemaine and Bendigo in previous years and although numbers today may not be as high as in the past, Lions Club volunteers and driving instructors turn up, every year to give a sizable group of VIPs some quality track time.
When getting behind the wheel, each VIP has a conversation with the instructor before taking the car onto the track, the instructor assesses the extent of their vision and driving experience and tailors their instructions to that person’s specific needs.
These needs vary from person to person and can mean as little as saying “on” or “off”, while the instructor changes gears, and “brake”, to more complex instructions which may include distance to the corner, when to turn and how much to turn.
It is clear the instructors get as much out of this day as the VIPs.
“I found out about this about 10 years ago and have been back most years since,” said Rowan White, a Melbourne based driving instructor.
“Initially I got an awful lot out of it because one has to be really precise and establish a rapport with a vision impaired person, with any driver, but particularly with a vision impaired driver… it really helped me refine the way I assess people of what they can do and what I can give back to them.”
The event was also supported by Vision Australia, a not-for-profit organisation which supports blind and low vision Australians in helping them become more independent.
Vision Australia’s Access Technology Specialist, Elise Lonsdale was there on the day.
“Because I am vision impaired myself, I’ve not been behind the wheel of a car for a long, long time and it is one of the things I have always wanted to do… and realistically one can’t with low vision, so I took the opportunity today to get in on the fun and I was on the first drive and had a ball.”
Vision Australia’s attendance and coverage of the day by both Channel Nine and Channel Ten brought welcomed publicity to the day. In The Driver’s Seat is the brain child of the Lions Club of Warrandyte.
Pete Watts set up the day 22 years ago when his vision was damaged by glaucoma and Pete became aware of the debilitating effect of vision impairment.
From that first event to now, and into the future, driving instructors bring along their cars and give their time for free to these VIPs, to give back a piece of their old life for a few laps. Murray Rowland, 56, began to lose his eyesight at the age of 17.
“Now I don’t see past my nose; I just see dark and light perception.
“What I get out of today is what the sighted take for granted — driving a motor car every day.
“Going down the straight…and hearing the roar of the motor and knowing I am in control of it, not the driving instructor or someone else, is just a really exciting and fun time.”
A self-confessed lead foot, the smile on Murray’s face speaks volumes about what this day means to the visually impaired and blind.
“The smile will be there on my face for a week…and I just thank everybody who puts it together because it is just an awesome experience…we do not get this chance except for this one day of the year.”
I was given an opportunity to join one of the VIPs on their run of laps.
Strapped in to the back seat trying to hold the camera steady while the driving instructor and the VIP tested our nerves as we accelerated towards 100kph on the front and back straights was better than any theme park thrill ride and the joy in the voice of my VIP driver, John, was infectious.
After seven laps of accelerating, braking, turning and overtaking — at speed — I am not sure if the driver had more fun or I did.
The excitement was exhilarating and I can see why people like John come back year after year.
However, there is more to the day than just driving instructors assisting the visually impaired to relive the joy of driving.
A contingent of classic cars and the Ulysses Motorcycle Club were also in attendance to take anybody there on a hot lap around the track in a variety of vehicles.
The Ulysses Club have been coming to the event since 2012.
“It’s the children, mainly, that brings us here,” said Homer, Ulysses Club member and the club’s liaison at the event.
“We just like seeing their faces smile when they’ve gone for a ride, it gives us a buzz.”
The contribution to this event by classic car owners and the Ulysses Club make this day a great family day out for friends and family of the visually impaired and for the handful of volunteers.
“We offer rides around the track when it is our time on the track, we also offer rides around the car park and the side street.
“They get to enjoy all bits of it — they get the buzz of the speed and some may even ask if we can go a little bit faster,” said Homer.
Even though this event is run in Springvale, attracting the support of national organisations such as Vision Australia and the Ulysses Club brings in the blind and visually impaired from all over the state, and beyond, it is still, at its core, a Lions Club of Warrandyte event.
“We’ve got about 100 VIPs today,” said Jenni Dean, Lions Club of Warrandyte President.
“We’ve had people come from America just to drive around the track, they’ll even fly over from New Zealand — I think it is fantastic.”
After more than 20 years of running this event, the organisational workflow is very efficient which is lucky as year on year the Lions Club of Warrandyte seems to get smaller and smaller with only a handful of current members in both the Lions and the Leos.
“We’d love it if people out there would want to join the Lions Club in Warrandyte, they too could then get an experience like this,” said Jenni.
Bolstered by the support of Nillumbik, Park Orchards and Noble Park Lions Clubs and a handful of volunteers from within the community, the Warrandyte Lions were able to put together another brilliant day at Sandown and both the attending VIPs and myself look forward to coming back next year.