Tuesday 17 May 2022

 Australia's first bioptic motorcyclist!


Belinda riding her bike (photo credit: ACT Office for Disability commissioned Damsel and Sprout  www.damselandsprout.com.au)

Its a dream come true! I am now a motorcyclist, but with one difference, I use a bioptic as an assistive technology device to support for poor vision acuity. I have always wanted to ride motorbike and thought with the right support I could. Its been a very long journey. 


Getting my licence

In 2018 I got my motorbike learner licence and my first bike that is my current bike you see below, in 2019. Before I got my licence I spent years researching other bioptic motorcyclists, asking questions about learning techniques and how they fit their bioptic in their helmet so the scope can fit with the visor down. I started with a silver open face helmet as that is all I could find in Canberra at short notice. After getting my learner licence, my partner drove me to Sydney to a bike superstore and I got the white Nolan helmet that I love because it is full face, fits the bioptic really well, has a visor for glare shading and can remove the chin for open face use.

To get your learner motorbike licence in the ACT, you do a one day course that teaches how to use a motorbike, to get on and off, start and cut power, go and stop, turn, brake, throttle control including friction point. We started in a room with a group of five others. The instructor asked each to come up to the desk with their licence so he could sight it. In seeing mine I told him I'm a bioptic rider and it is part of my licence condition to use the bioptic and fit overs and showed him those conditions. He asked if the bioptic fit in my helmet, I said yes and the day started. I was very nervous all day. At the end the instructor called us together, passed the three men and failed the three women (there are rumblings about the issues of a male dominated instructor environment for motorcycles but not for discussion here). One young lady did an about face and headed straight to her car in tears. Another instructor came up to me later and said they thought I did okay and if I had time I can use my free lesson to do a test after. That happened and they gave me my certificate of passing. The next day I went to the driver licencing authority and applied for the learner licence condition. Again, I was nervous but for no need, they called the medical team as I provided my medical document as well and came back with good to go! I was stoked! Immediately rang Brad my partner to share the awesome news!

Belinda riding her bike wearing her first motorbike helmet, a silver open face 'postie' style helmet. There is a large "L" for learner on the back next to the number plate. You can see her face in the reflection of the right side mirror.


Disability secrets

As a disabled person I am constantly giving myself a heads up in all I do. How can I practice and learn in a safe space. To start my journey, because I see best at night, I started to learn to get to know my bike in the simple suburban streets. I needed to get comfortable starting, stopping, shifting gears, hold friction point, road positioning, understanding how I can deal with oncoming traffic and my environment. I practiced these skills until I felt comfortable to start day riding. I then moved to riding after work and on weekends. I then felt ready to look for support from other riders. 
It is because of ableism I am constantly trying to give myself a fighting chance. What is 'ableism'? Simply put it is the idea that the normal way of doing things by those without disability is the way things need to continue and that change of systems or process to accommodate people of disability is unsafe or wrong - its prejudice.
If it were only that simple "those who give a go, get a go" - not for disable people. It is attitudes that forsake our dignity to participate in all aspects of life.

Sharing the journey

By far the best part has been sharing the journey with others. For this I have to thank ACT Facebook groups: Female Riders of Canberra (FROC) and Gorgeous Ladies on Wheels (GLOW). I have met some amazing women through this group with friends still today and been going on group rides since I joined. I joined ladies for fortnightly dinner and chat and participated in online forums sharing tips. It was so refreshing to learn that all people had the same feelings as me. One lady posted "how do I get to 60km/hr without crapping my pants". OMG I laughed so hard and thought to myself wow, I thought the same at first and its not because of my eyesight. its normal! I know this too because I've traveled regularly on my push bike at 60, 70 and even 80km/hr. 

Overall the other riders have been curious to learn and fantastic to ask questions and seek information about concerns. However, I was advised by one rider of one couple making a comment like "ah, I don't want her smashing into my windscreen" with the insinuation being because of my eyesight they think I'll ride into their car and get hit and be flung into their windscreen. I can certainly see where fear comes from. What I don't think is fair is people spreading these types of statements about people who are different from them and using those as facts and not trying to find out about the evidence or research or ask me or ask others. This unfortunately is how disability discrimination happens and is not just unconscious bias, its ableism i.e. the belief that only able body people can do these things.

Overall I have had good experiences. I have joined the groups for many rides. Here is one for the 2019 Convoy for Cancer where we raised funds and dressed up and joined the convoy of hundreds of other riders following the trucks around Canberra streets.

Belinda's motorbike decorated for Convoy for Cancer ride with pink boa and rubber small unicorn on the handlebars

Belinda is second from the left top in a group of people wearing costumes and helmets

For me the simplicity of commuting with my motorbike is my life blood. I love riding to work and from work because I get on that bike with the baggage or thoughts and enter flow mode as soon as the engine kicks over. I love the sound of that V-twin and love to hear it roar through the gears as I blip through. 

I have been on long group day rides as well to various places. Its great to start out early, join the group for riding out on country roads and head back home after lunch and other stops. Here's a couple of photos of some of us at Wildbrumby Distillery just outside Jindabyne in NSW's snowy region.

Four motorbikes with back drop of Lake Jindabyne, Belinda's bike is second in line.

Group of people at Wildbrumby Distillery. Belinda is squatting in front of group.

Life long learning and keeping safe

I love learning from different sources and different people. I spent years looking at training methods and YouTube videos and learning about how motorbike crashes happen and how can I avoid them. Overall I learnt I need to ride like no one sees me...just like how I ride when riding my push bike on the road. It doesn't matter who's in the right, the one on the bike will come off worse. I know I still have a lot to learn and periodically do training courses to build my skills. Here's a photo of me at one of the training courses.  

Belinda is rider at the top of the screen about to go into the bend.

I have to share that on this course I was feeling over confident. A recipe for accidents for those who cannot reign it in. So towards the end of the day at this bend I tried to overtake a scooter who also sped up to prevent me from overtaking. I then didn't leave myself enough braking space before the bend, overshot and rode onto the grass. I later had a chat to the scooter rider to say sorry for scaring the crap out of her and she said she thought I was a goner! That incident put me in check and I am really grateful for that experience, especially in a controlled environment. I also think that because of my years of experience of riding a mountain bike I did not panic and let the bike run straight while I slowly pulled the rear brake only. I also must emphasie for the ableists reading this post, no, it was not my eyesight as to why this happened. It was my ego and my choice to overtake on a bend and I knew what I was doing and where I was positioned on that straight and bend and knew the instructors had already told us to do the overtaking in the straight. I had run out of skill, not eyesight. Or as my partner puts it, I did a Rossi... my ambition outweighed my talent. Yet, this is something I would not and do not do on the road. I leave the ego to training courses.

At another course, one instructor came up to me to tell me a story of a friend who had a crash wearing glasses under their helmet and indicated to me the risk of me wearing my bioptic should I crash. I pleasantly chatted back. But really wanted to tell him, doesn't he think I already know this and still decide to ride just like other riders who wear glasses?

The ACT government offers a free few hours group course for people who first get their learner licence. At this first course I realised later the instructor had set me up for failure and fell right into the trap. I want to share this so other disabled people can prepare themselves for this type of behaviour (- unfortunately not the first time this sort of thing has happened to me by a teacher/ instructor in doing activities). It was a group of about 7 riders. After our skills session we set off to run through a circuit on streets. The instructor then told me to lead the group. I felt in myself to say no. The reason being is I always travel in familiar areas and get to know routes driving and riding and at my own time and pace so I know the speed limits, where critical signs are where to stop / start etc. But not listening to my inner voice and not wanting to make a scene off I went. I rode under the speed limit, did not position my bike properly in certain lanes and couldn't see where we had to stop. When we did stop the instructor said "well that was shit!" and went on a rant ripping into me in front of everyone the above points. I was stunned and I am pretty sure someone else complained on my behalf. That's the other thing. As disabled people we are so scared of being attacked constantly we don't lodge complaints and it takes a lot of strength and acceptance and preparedness of what might happen to you if you do complain. Yep, not okay. What was even more glaring on this course is on the run after, one of the women who rode a scooter when trying to park it lost control and full throttled into the other parked bikes and knocked them over. The instructor was calm and nice to her. Putting that experience behind me and embedding how to ensure I keep my boundaries in the face of authority telling me to do things I am not ready to do. I then went and did the course again a few week later. It was all good.

Sharing to give others hope

The most important part of all of this is to show it can be done in Australia and to give hope and drive to other potential and current bioptic drivers who think they can ride a motorbike. Yes, its hard. People really need to make themselves aware of the risks and self manage all the time when riding. This isn't for all bioptic drivers, in fact, I think only a minority and only those who have years of riding experience of a push bike on the road. Those people have learnt to keep themselves safe riding on the road and know that they must ride as though they are not seen.

Here is some of the media throughout my journey and I'll update in the comments from time to time too.

Thank you to the ACT Office for Disability for this photo shoot opportunity. Photos of people living with disability were commission in 2021 to be used in government campaigns to promote disability awareness in the ACT. More can be seen here about disability awareness in the ACT: https://www.involvedcbr.com.au/news/article/344/australias-first-ever-bioptic-driving-demonstration-day

Belinda sitting on her bike wearing her bioptic with helmet sitting on fuel tank. (photo credit: ACT Office for Disability commissioned Damsel and Sprout  www.damselandsprout.com.au)
Belinda sitting on her bike with Black Mountain tower in the background. (photo credit: ACT Office for Disability commissioned Damsel and Sprout  www.damselandsprout.com.au)

I would like to thank the ABC for this awesome story of my journey:

And here is the written story:


It is really encouraging to learn that there is now another bioptic motorcyclist living in South Australia. Just awesome!

Saturday 11 July 2020

Today its official: I hold an open drivers license and I'm a bioptic driver in Australia

It's Official! Today I am the holder of an 'open' drivers license!

in the photo to the right in the section titled 'Class' of license you can see a 'C' is for car and 'R' for motorcycle rider. For both, the provisional status ceases today, 12 July 2020.

And, in section titled 'Conditions' you see a 'P', 'S', X'. The P per the above is the provisional status that ends today. It is still listed on my license because at the time I went into Access Canberra to apply and pay for my open license I still held the P status. So this new license, even though the new colour, has dates of when the P ends - this is standard practice. Its also standard practice that first open license you hold is only for three years instead of the standard five years (or you can pay for a one year).

The other two conditions; 'S' for spectacles and 'X' for documented condition are listed on a piece of paper connected to my license. the spectacle condition is very common, if you are required to wear glasses then you have a 'conditional' drivers license where you must wear your spectacles/glasses. That's me too. But! because I am a bioptic driver, I have an added condition that I must wear my bioptic. And due to my very unique eyesight condition, during the day I must wear tints on the top of the my bioptic. So the 'X' condition is generally a medical requirement when you are driving. And for me, that's bloody fantastic! Because without the tints and bioptic I would never have been able to drive, not just get the drivers license so for me it's a no brainer! Here is my document conditions card:

Wow! Surreal, but not as surreal as each milestone from the begining of my journey. Along the way its less all consuming and difficult mentally, emotionally and physically. But, that's not to say its easy. Because it is not. Here's just a few dot points of the challenges I have had to overcome to get to this point:
  • being told as a child and teen that there is nothing anyone can do, "you will never drive";
  • always knowing in my heart if I had the right supports I could drive but it took 30 years;
  • occupational therapists in ACT not wanting to be my driving instructor because they had no idea bioptic driving existed and saw me as too high risk;
  • having a motorcycle instructor ripe into me on a group ride when asked to lead the group yet one of the other learner riders smacked her scooter into one of the other bikes and fell over- there were calm and kind words from the instructor;
  • my own blind community in Australia overtly condemned me for bioptic driving and warning others not to do it;
  • almost loosing my license not because I had done anything wrong but because the national regulator was persuaded by one conservative eye doctor based on emotive statements that biooptic drivers are too risky. Being judged negatively based on an attribute I was born with and living in fear that my human rights will be violated when the science shows otherwise;
  • for years having to keep secret and hide my joy, my exciting milestones, my later in life journey of living an ordinary life and doing an ordinary thing - getting a drivers license that everyone else sees as a right of passage as a teen and jokes about learning mistakes. For me and others with medical conditions, the prejudice is real. We are not afforded that normal training of mistakes and any mistake is put back on us in a way it is because of our medical condition.

The hardest barriers have been and continue to be 'attitude'. Driving these days for eyesight is no long the fixed yes or no of 6/12 from the 1950s/60s. Today we are about functional assessments and reasonable adjustment along with occupational therapy and conditions. It's a different world where the science shows bioptic drivers can be safe drivers.

Along with the personal barriers I have had to move through to become a bioptic driver, we as a group face an existential barrier of whether bioptic driving will continue at all in Australia, remain stagnant as it is now with only a handful of specialists meaning supply is severely hampered. Or, if decision makers today have the political courage to listen to the science, embrace technology, honor human rights and expand economic opportunities to implement an Australian bioptic driving framework.

This is why we set up Bioptic Drivers Australia:

I am proud of me and I am proud of all you who share this journey: drivers and assessor/trainers alike.

Sunday 8 March 2020

Four Wheel Driving as a Bioptic Driver

Do any of you as bioptic drivers do 4WDing? Or want to? Here is my certificate to show I passed the three day Basic 4WD Driver Training – and am really looking forward to doing more 4WDing and supporting my partner whom is the main driver.

In February 2019 I did a 4WD course with Southern Tablelands 4WD Club and took the opportunity to do my disability leadership thing. Am so very grateful to ST4WDC in taking my training in their stride and being so very supportive of bioptics and bioptic low vision driving. You can check them out and their courses here:


They asked me to present to the class of students about the bioptic and why I was using it. The head instructor used positive and inclusive language to talk about the bioptic on the benefits that it is fantastic and life changing. As a result, the students embraced me and were helpful knowing my poor vision.

My instructor was very impressed how I used the bioptic to do the job and managed my own pace and situation. Here is an interview I did with Robert Pepper, one of the club members who runs a FB automotive magazine. He was amazed and wanted to put the word out in case bioptics can help others.

As a person with vision impairment who uses a bioptic to drive and only been driving for three years, I knew this training was going to require some adaption but having observed with my partner do the course last year I believed it was achievable. I can highly recommend that if any person who does things differently would like to see if they can 4WD that they are able to be given opportunity to observe as I did and then learn and consider if and how they can apply what needs to be done to how they need to do it. Further, whilst I did observe last time, there is nothing like actually doing the training yourself to give you that hands on muscle memory and for me that is essential as I learn by doing.

I need to give whole hearted credit to my trainer who was amazing both with skill and flexibility to take things in his stride by firstly listening to me about what I can and cannot see but also and most importantly, not making assumptions about what he thought I can and cannot see or do. This is really difficult for most people. It is a tribute to him that I progress so well through the course.

I went along just wanting to learn to 4WD so I could take the wheel to support my partner when we go on trips. I considered my learning would be slow and methodical taking it in my stride and just being happy as to where I am at. However to my surprise I progressed at the same pace as the other students, even with some modifications and not knowing the car as it is not my daily drive.

As an example, there is a cone exercise where the instructor puts a coloured cone on the ground and you have to drive forward and put your right front wheel and then left front wheel on top of that cone. This skill is required so you can learn where your wheels as under you as you drive so you can position your vehicle exactly over an obstacle such as a rut or offsets or a rock. The other part of the cone exercise is to reverse your truck around a pole as a u-turn without knocking the pole down.

For the cone exercise I truly did not think I would be able to place the wheels so close to the cone on both sides nor to be able to back the big dual cab ute around the pole. But I did all of that and without too much effort. What helped is knowing my disability and what I need to see which is high contrast. So in preparation we had bought black and white tape to place on the bonnet to mark where the tires sit under the bonnet. Whereas other students used cable ties that I struggled to see. Doing the course also allowed me to figure out what times of the day I struggle to see the terrain and think about how to compensate for such. For example, certain times of the day when the sun shines into the cab I have difficulty seeing out so needed to slow the car, ensure the windshield is clean and sometimes look outside the window instead of the windscreen. Being all at low speed allowed me to think and drive.

Lastly, the comradeship developed with co-trainees really topped off the experience. All such lovely people, trainees and trainers alike. People were greatly supportive of each other and certainly felt safe and professionalism was key. The bon fires on Friday and Saturday night made for relaxing social time and great viewing.

Here are some pictures and videos of my experience. These include manuevring on rough terain up and down hills, how to tackle ruts, how to understand if you can drive over an object or to find another way and much more.

The above two videos are of 4WD snatch exercise. This is a very important aspect you must learn with 4WD. You need to know the gear you need and how to use it. We then get to demonstrate being snatched by another vehicle i.e. being pulled out. And we learn to snatch another vehicle.

Belinda in drivers seat with instructor in passenger seat driving over offset mounds

Driving over offset mounds giving a wave
Driving up steep incline around a corner that has a rock preceding and under the front left wheel.

Defensive driving as a bioptic driver – do it!

A bit of delay on posts these days but nonetheless the good stuff is coming!

Just as I got my provisional drivers licence in 2017 I booked myself into a defensive driving course.  Why? Well I always want to learn anything that will help me with safe driving practices.

This is something I really do recommended to anyone whom first gets their licence – that is EVERYONE!  Probably even good if you get a new car too to see how it handles.

So what do you learn at these sorts of courses?  Check out this website of the course I attended:

As a first time driver I was excited to learn how my car behaves and techniques in common situations I might get myself into trouble.  Just a few things we did:
·      Emergency braking
·      Swerving
·      Braking at speed on the side of the road
·      Behaviour of car on the skidpan – in the wet, with and without traction control.

In addition to these practical matters, we were also taught theory on numerous matters that you don’t get told when you learn to drive and are really valuable!

As an example, did you know that we all (disability or not) have a blind spot in the middle of our eye where the optic nerve connects and that this means when we are at an intersection looking to the right and left, we may not see an oncoming car because it is in our blind spot?  One other blind spot in this scenario you may be aware of is the windscreen side panels.  So to compensate for these you can move your head side to side and up and down so your eyes have different views and this helps mitigate vision loss in those blind spots.  Try it!  Tell me what you think?

So what did we do?

This is a video of me driving up to 60km/hr, then emergency breaking on a bend.  So behind each of these sessions, the instructor would explain what we are doing, the principle learning outputs, how to do the activity and then demonstrate.

Here is a video of me emergency breaking on the side the road, half gravel and half road surface.  You can hear the instructor talking to me about technique.  This activity helped me feel how the car behaves when traction is different on either side of the car and how I need to handle the steering wheel to keep the car stable.

As a person with disability and bioptic driver I have additional challenges.  I recognise this and felt this course would be an excellent environment to be taught some things of what not to do and what to do in a controlled setting.  I also felt tentative.  I knew I would be the first bioptic driver the trainers and classmates had ever seen and just like anything I have done in the mainstream.  I got the feeling the instructors were a little tentative with my presence so I did what I could be open and honest about my vision, barriers and support I needed.  As an example, when at distance the instructor motioned to the driver to ‘go’ I asked they use their whole arm for that motion rather than just a small motion.  This allowed me to see the arm movement through my bioptic at a distance.  You can see this in the above video.

Lastly, the skidpan!  Sure it’s a load of fun!  But it’s also a serious learning platform and boy of boy I did love learning here.  These activities assisted me in learning how to control the car around bends in the wet, accelerating into the corner, braking but not stopping and maintaining direction.  We did this with the traction control on and then off.

You should also be aware sometimes you may be tested as a driver without knowing you will be tested!  At the end of my skidpan session I was asked to park my car, and then asked to move it after I had gotten out and walked inside.  They were making sure I was complying to conditions of my licence, i.e. even though I was moving only five meters, I needed to ensure I put on my bioptic and seat belt.  A reminder all, ALWAYS wear your bioptic and comply with your licence conditions!  Here is a video:

Driving is a privilege, not a right.  We know this just as much as anyone as in many of our cases as people with disability we have had to fight so hard to do something we know we can but just differently. In my view I believe these defensive driving courses should be mandatory for ALL people whom have just moved to their provisional licence.

It also shouldn’t be reserved for those whom have done something wrong on the road too.  In my class one teen driver shared a story where she was driving on a two-lane road, indicated to change lanes, moved over and smashed into the car in the blind spot.  She did not do a head check, was travelling down a slight decline and both cars were written off.  This incident left an indelible mark on her psyche and she was scared to drive.  This stuff does happen, lets make sure as people with disability it is not us whom are doing these things.  Lets also make sure its not us whom were not prepared for the car moving mover into our lane and get hit.  I can say this has nearly happened on the road to me which meant I had to brake slightly in a safe manner being aware of the position of the traffic around me whilst beeping my horn to stop the person from moving over – they heard my horn, obviously got scared themselves as their car swayed from side to side as they over corrected the steering wheel to get back into their lane.  This stuff happens - don’t let it be you.  There are heaps of things we can learn as drivers that impact driver behaviour to create safer driving practices and you’ll learn much by attending one of these courses.

Even if you are just looking for something get to know your car better and testing your driving boundaries, then give this a go.  Might scare the pants off some but, better it happens in this controlled setting so you are taught what to do in case it happens out there on the road.  You’ll love it!

Tuesday 15 January 2019

What I've been taught and learnt about safe driving practices

Learning all I can about how to keep myself and others safe on the road whether I'm riding my bike or driving is really important to me. I don't want to hurt or kill myself or someone else including my passengers or others on the road. I want to enjoy the driving experience for as long as I am functionally able to drive safely.

Unfortunately due to preconceptions, it has taken years of practice and research to show that people with vision impairment can indeed drive and do so to a high enough standard as not to be any more unsafe than someone without vision impairment. The Bioptic Drivers Australia website contains blogs and research and FAQs about the legal, policy and research areas for low vision and bioptic driving from at least the 1940s. Yet despite this research and evidence, it seems some eye care professionals have persuaded policy and law makers that it is in society's interest of safety to prevent people with vision impairment from driving altogether. From my review of the policy papers, it seems much of the 'evidence' is based on the 'what if' fear if something is not seen rather than empirical evidence, even where this evidence is freely available. The question is 'how much research and practice and evidence is needed to give the green light to people with vision impairment'? The team at BDA are working on policy matters in this area so you can check out the website if you want to read up on it: https://www.biopticdriversaus.com/research

With this backdrop in mind and knowing I will be questioned everywhere I go when learning to drive using a bioptic. In some places experiencing micro-aggression or even outright aggression because of that person's ignorance and fear about low vision driving. I knew it would be a contentious path and one I needed to be fully informed about so I could talk with people to address their fear by demonstrating the wealth of research and practice. This is something I encourage all low vision drivers to do. To familiarise themselves with what safe driving practices mean and to talk with those who make fun of you. An example of micro-aggression is where a friend knowing about your vision impairment and that you now drive makes a comment such as 'well we better tell everyone to get off the road now you're driving!'. Whilst such a comment is put forward in jest, there is an element of perceived truth from the speakers perspective, one of fear. Letting someone go on in these terms and if these digs carry on for some time can lead others also thinking and speaking negatively about fear around your driving. And this is based on their view of low vision driving. Thus it is really helpful the low vision driver is able to come back with a witty quip to address the fears and be prepared to have a conversation on evidence if necessary.

Here are some of the things I've learnt over the years that I put into practice as driving activities that I believe contribute to driving safety:

Car adaptations

See my blog 'Choosing a car and adaptions' for how I have modified my car and why and how I believe that contributes to safe driving practice.

The 5-second (not 3-second) rule

Learning to drive you are taught to maintain a distance of three (3) seconds from the vehicle in front of you. Research and practice shows the most common accidents for all drivers, including bioptic drivers, are rear end collisions - why then do they keep happening? If I could only give one tip, it'd be this one. Keep a 5 second gap from the car in front. Don't worry about cars jumping into the gap, just ease off and make the gap again. I'm not perfect myself and sometimes sway from this rule, but then pull myself up now and again. Overtime this becomes an embedded practice without thinking. So if you are going to learn an embedded practice, start out with good practices and pull yourself up now and again.

Also, this doesn't mean you are not doing the speed limit, because you are maintaining speed. You might back off a bit to increase the gap but then you are back to the speed limit again.

" The rule states: If you reach the same fixed point before you can count to three, then you are driving too close to the car in front of you and you need to fall back a bit. The 3-second rule allows for a safe following distance when the road is dry and straight."

Here is a video that helps explain:

To accompany this rule, is maintaining a good stopping distance at an intersection from the car in front. You should be able to see the bottom of the back wheel's tyres on the road when stopped. This gap gives room if the car rolls back or for you to roll forward and they don't when the lights turn green (another rear end collision).

Also related to intersections but particularly those with traffic lights, my driving instructor in Canberra taught me. When you have poll position at the traffic lights and they turn green, always look to your right and left and right again before taking off. Don't hold up the traffic, the practice gets quicker overtime. Doing this allows you to notice break lights and movement from the cross traffic that is suppose to have already stopped or preparing to stop. There is always a chance a car may speed up on the amber light that the driver misjudges the distance and goes through the red light at speed or a driver is distracted and misses the red light. You are looking for the break lights of those poll cars to stop. You can do this by taking off with slow progression of speed.

As a cyclist a mindset I have taken with me to driving is not to trust anyone on the road. Always pretend I am not seen, be obvious and predictable with my behaviour. Stay mindful in the moment when on the road. Yes accidents are rare and yes accidents can happen to you. It only takes a split second of inattention and you can rear end another vehicle or hit that cyclist crossing in front of the intersection. It may only take one incident, driving is not easy, is serious and there is a lot in your control to prevent things from happening. As a person with disability I consider myself lucky to be given extra techniques and more training than the usual driver but wish these techniques were taught to all drivers.

Only drive in familiar areas or use justifiable supports for unfamiliar areas

This one is so important that many low vision and bioptic drivers have restrictions on their licence to ensure they only drive within a certain radius i.e. the intent only familiar areas. These areas can become unfamiliar suddenly and without notice, hence the need to maintain observation skills as many accidents occur close to home. Examples can include, a traffic accident, road works or bad weather. Personally I stick to familiar routes even if I know it will take me longer. There may be various ways to get to a destination but, if I am feeling tired or there is bad weather, I will choose a route to suit e.g. slower speed with more stopping. It also helps that I tell myself if with this change I will be getting home quicker than I would have on the bicycle or in the bus (and there are days I would rather be riding my bike or taking the bus).

When you start driving the roads you are familiar with are very few if any at all! Fortunately for me I live in a city that is not large and well planned so its easy to get around and I have spent the previous 15 years riding a push bike on the road so was already familiar with many roads. Riding a push bike is an excellent way to teach yourself the traffic rules and judging distances. It also gives you the perspective of a vulnerable road user so may help you notice cyclists whilst driving. As you take driving lessons your instructor will take you through familiar roads and you can learn various routes. Further, whilst a learner, that is the best opportunity to get someone to drive you places and then you practice driving to that place. I'd really recommended lots of hours of practice as a learner and from as many different people as you can and lots of hours of instruction. The foundation will always sit with you.

Justifiable supports can be per the above, have someone drive the area with you as a passenger, or that you drive with them as a passenger or you drive by yourself using the GPS voice to tell you where to go. For me this is a progression that I determine depending on my familiarity with the road and my relative confidence level at the time I need to drive (can be impacted on things such as lack of sleep). For example, I can drive to the next town being 2.5 hrs away at 110km/hr just using the GPS. But I can only do this because for the past 15 years I have travelled that road several times a year and driven it as a learner. Further, I have mapped the route on my GPS, looked at google maps street view the whole way and researched traffic conditions and stopped every 40mins to recheck my route and take a rest. But when I get to that city, I will not drive in that city because I am not familiar with the roads. This is a personal decision I have made that I consider justifiable support based on how familiar and comfortable I am with the driving task.

This is something each person needs to self monitor. It is clear the more unfamiliar the territory the more complex the driving task and more taxing on mental brain power to keep it all going and safely.

Compensate for blind spots 

We all know about the blind spots on our car and a simple way to help address these is to get someone to walk around the back of your car and you see if you can see the person the whole time, where you cannot see that person, that is your blind spot. As I note above, you can get blind spot mirrors to help fill those blind spots and by ensuring you do a head check when merging etc that is better.

But there is also a blind spot in our eyes that is a natural structure of the eye. Information at the below link explains and an extract here:

"We normally do not notice the blind spot because we are using both eyes.  What lies in the blind spot of one eye is visible by the other eye, so we are not aware of its presence.  
However, when driving it is important to see all the traffic around us, right?  If we simply glance around using eye movement instead of moving our head carefully to scan around, we may fall prey to the blind spot.  Often we see objects with only one eye at a time because vision is blocked to the other eye.  The bridge of our nose, windshield posts, and other obstructions could block the vision of one eye, but not the other.  If an important object, say the car on the left in the photo below, is seen with only one eye due to a glance, it may enter the blind spot of the eye and totally disappear from sight."
From: https://memicsafety.typepad.com/memic_safety_blog/2009/06/whats-in-your-blind-spot.html

Its important to keep moving your head, not just your eyes. Especially when turning left or right. Make this a standard practice. By moving I mean up and down and side to side. You will be surprised when one day that practice means you suddenly see a car passing you at a T intersection and did not notice it at first glance. Luckily you took a good look to compensate for your blind spot to prevent that side on collision.

This technique if also important to use when turning because it will help you detect movement of any kind. So it might not be a car, it might be a motorbike in the lane or a bicycle also coming up the lane about to cross your path as you turn. Its really important to be cognisant of vulnerable road users as they can be just as unpredictable as the traffic and in some cases more manoeuvrable. Hence it helps to try to anticipate once you have seen the road user.

Protect yourself and protect others by being aware of your blind spots and seek to compensate.

Always use scan and observation skills

One disability driving instructor taught me the action of 'bouncing your eyes'. This is great for a person with vision impairment and something I had already been doing for years on my push bike, both road and mountain bike. You need to see at a distance as far as possible and what is in front of you at the same time. Bouncing your eyes means you point your eyes in the distance then drag them forward to just in front of your car and then repeat. And/or, point your eyes in front of your car and drag them to the distance. The speed depends on your comfort at that time. I work this routine into my scanning routine to include rear and side mirrors, bioptic and bouncing.

Other scanning includes to ensure you are not just looking at the car in front of you but move your gaze to several cars in front. That way you may spy a sudden brake light that will cascade down the line. Also be sure to be scanning (but not turning your head) horizontally on the sides of the road so as to notice movement. You don't need to be sure what that object may be, just notice the movement. Once movement is seen you can then gaze again to determine if that object is in your lane, coming towards your lane, going straight etc i.e. if it is a potential threat. When I say gaze, for me this means 1-2 secs looking to the side and may slightly tilt my head on occasion but already maintaining forward gazing.

It is worth noting that where you look is where the direction of your body and anything attached to it will go. If you are a cyclist you learn this pretty quickly, especially a mountain biker - don't look at that tree in front of you, look at the path you want to take between the trees or on the track. On a road bike at speed you might suddenly be upon a dead kangaroo or other debris. As a cyclist you would already be scanning, even travelling along a freeway breakdown lane at 70km/hr. When debris suddenly appears you are already aware whether cars are travelling behind you and where your bunch might be. Thus the action you take in that split second will accommodate for those surroundings. You might have to bunny hop the object or know you can swerve. The same is true when driving for observation but you should never swerve (as this is one of the main causes of single vehicle accidents, especially for new drivers) always break and prepare to the hit the object. As a cyclist I have been hit by a car that swerved into the bike lane when trying to avoid the car in front (this was slow moving traffic and I am sure the driver was looking at their mobile phone while creeping forward) - do not swerve. Where you look is where your car will go. Do not fixate on the object of danger, look for the escape route, which with constant practice and vigilance should become a natural part of your driving.

These skills can be more difficult to perform if you have the radio going or passengers distracting you. Just be aware of such when these events are happening. If I know I am tired from a long day at work I will not turn on my radio on the way home and instead force myself to scan. Safety first.

Here are a couple of other tips

  • Always keep your windscreen exceptionally clean - I keep in my car a bottle of half/half white vinegar/water solution along with a roll of paper towels. I clean every few days and can do so at home or work or elsewhere if I've driven on a dirt road.
  • Use your time as a learner driver to work through how your disability impacts on the driving task. You are the expert of your condition. Read about other disability drivers and try different techniques and tools as we are all different so you may find modifying slightly something someone else uses is better for you. Be curious. Don't let others give you a blanket no but be reasonable. Professionals can give you information from their view but the decision is yours to make and there are always options.
  • Do a defensive driving course - these are excellent to be done once you move from learner to provisional. They will teach you lots of safe driving practices and you may get to have a bit of fun on the skid pan if they have one!
  • Do a car maintenance course - great to learn to do easy stuff if you get stuck, like change a wheel, or a light, measure your tyre pressure and know wear to go/how to pump it up and add oil/water when needed. Simple things keep your car running and you safe.
Here is a video of me driving on a parkway from 60km/hr to 80km/hr to 100km/hr and passing vehicles. You will see the distance I maintain from the front vehicles and notice how the white ute is tail gating the P platter little car - very common in Canberra - they love tail gating and you can choose not to do this! Drive your own journey, not what others do.

After reading this, if you feel exhausted, then good! Because driving is not easy and takes a lot of mental energy. Hence practice your skill one at a time, add another, practice that, then combine the two and so on. It'll become second nature.

Do you have suggestions for safe driving practices? Comments very welcome!

Monday 14 January 2019

Address disability barriers - maximising vision for the driving task

My eye sight condition is Achromatopsia, in Australia they call it Rod Monochronatism. Because the cones in the retina have not developed (or do not exist) I have no colour vision, poor visual acuity and Hemeralopia (day blindness - a severe form of glare sensitivity). For the driving task I considered that all of these factors needed to be addressed individually and in conjunction in various settings.

The advice given to my parents and me is that nothing can be done, just provide some reading glasses, a magnifier and miniscope (hand help scope to read distance generally about 12x). So throughout school that is what I used. It wasn't until I found a pair of Bolle Irex 100 sunglasses in a phone box putting them on changed my perspective. These are a dark brown/amber with yellowish tint. I could finally run down the road and see slightly better and not squint as much. I bought several pairs off ebay and took them to an optometrist to ask that they make several pairs for me. Over years I experimented with different opaqueness and yellow/brown combinations.

In this picture you can see the top right colourful frame is a template of the Bolle Irex 100. This is the last pair I bought and can only get them from the USA now because the Australian medical community recommended that this lens type is banned from sale in Australia due to motor vehicle accidents i.e. that people with normal vision forget they are wearing these tinted glasses and go through red lights. This of course disadvantaged the disability community who use this lens type to help maximise their vision.

The Rex Specs next to the Bolle has one eye tinted more than the other eye and the lens has my prescription for distance vision. I used these glasses a lot for cycling and other sports because I needed something that would wrap around my head to stay on my face. From here I went to the Ugly Fish frames on bottom left. These were excellent in that the frame allowed for a clip in head band strap or clip in arms (not in photo) which were flexi and designed to fit in a motorcycle helmet. So I got many different frames and had added various lens shades of brown/yellow tints from very dark to lighter for afternoon riding. The great thing about these is the fit in gasket that holds the prescription lens which I had added my distance and a bifocal for reading. For downhill biking and snowboarding I would add the goggle mask that gave me extra coverage from glare. On hot days if I am not riding fast enough my glasses would fog up meaning I would have to stop and wipe them clean - so from the motorcycle shop I got the Ugly Fish lens cleaner and Cat Crap that is a wax to prevent fogging - voila! No more fogging. At the bottom right are Barz Optics which are surfing goggles. I took them to my optometrist and had them add a dark Bolle Irex 100 tint. I love these and wear them in the surf swimming and body boarding because they allow for water flow.

It then was not until I joined an international Facebook group for my eye sight condition that I discovered red tinted contact lenses and medical specific glasses. I bought many types of tints in the cheapest frame so I could try different combinations of brown with amber with yellow and red with brown and yellow and various wave lengths of light opaqueness. At first I used these mountain biking to work out what best suits. However, over the years I have come to accept that no matter what combination I seek I cannot compensate for morning sun on the mountain so morning mountain biking in the bush I cannot do - along with many other things I try from time to time just to see if I can. The best time for me to ride is the afternoon sun and shade to evening. But as it turned out, the different environment for driving meant those barriers were different and not as severe so a different approach was needed for maximising my vision.

This picture shows the types of tinted contact lenses I have tried. At first the optometrist I was with was sceptical about red contacts saying they will reduce my vision by making it too dark. But, like many before, I had to educate them about Achromatopsia. To start with I got the top left red central contact lens for the better eye. I really did not think I could cope with puting my finger in my eye and the contact lens, it took months of practice! I persevered because I wanted the benefits. I then got the light brown contacts and trialed them with the red in the other eye. This was good. I then went to the reds on the bottom left. These were sent back several times to get the tint correct and to spread the tint over the whole eye because I was getting leak of glare that would blind me suddenly. I loved these and would wear them with the NOIR of various shades. Later I got the brown/reds for a more natural look and they are slightly darker so I use these in summer and bright areas.

Whilst wearing contacts makes my eyes look more natural in that I do not squint as much and my vision is more comfortable, they make it difficult to read the computer screen and printed text so I no longer wear them at work on a regular basis.

After reading more about bioptic driving and how others adapted their disability with the driving task, I now felt ready to buy a bioptic and try various tins of fit overs with contacts and no contacts for riding my bike and walking around.

This picture shows the Ocutech bioptic with a lens cap that is tinted brown. There are three slip ins that came with the bioptic. I do not use these because the yellow and brown are too light and the red is not the right colour and too dark. Also, I had to add the blinkers on the side to stop the glare from reflecting on the back of the slip in into my eyes preventing me from seeing out of the glasses.

I did not have to look long as corresponding with other bioptic drivers I found the NOIR fit over could be cut to allow the bioptic to be inserted. This allowed me to purchase many different shades for different driving environments. I could also use different combinations of contact lenses. The goal is to maximise what I see for the driving task. From top left to bottom right is tint #98 UVlight (no longer made by NOIR but I use it for heavy fog, dark/bad weather), #90 UVShield (main use is driving), #570 Glareshield (for me the red does not pop out as much as the other three), #93 UVDark (use in really bright areas).

The reason for red is being totally colourblind I do not see colour. In my natural state I can only see green traffic lights and cannot see amber or red signals nor indicators nor brake lights. There are people with my condition who choose to drive like this and to compensate they leave a bigger gap. I however wanted to work a system I could see all lights. The red does this. However, this meant I could no longer see green lights. So, by puting a brown tinted cap on the bioptic I can now use the bioptic to verify that the green light is on or off and matches opposite to the lights I see through the red carrier lens.

The final outcome for driving looks like this:
This is only a brief overview of a journey that continues today. Happy to answer any questions and to take feedback on any options that might improve maximising my vision for the driving task.

I hope this story helps others to consider how they can embark on their own journey of exploring options to maximise functional ability. As the person with disability, we are the experts. Coming to this realisation empowers to seek possibility rather than leaving our efficacy to others.

Sunday 13 January 2019

Choosing a car and adaptations

As a bioptic driver – how did I decide on a car choice and adaptions?

Now that I am a bioptic driver in Australia, I am often asked how I decided on a car choice and whether I made any adaptions to the car to support the driving task. So here is a blog on these matters. If you have suggestions and tips feel free to add comments below! I am always looking for new tech to improve the driving experience and safety.

Choosing a car

After getting my learner licence in July 2016, I started to learn to drive in a Nissan Navara 4x4 dual cab ute as that was my partners car at the time. It was a large vehicle with lots of blind spots. I had a reversing camera installed to assist with reversing and parking, it helped, but altermately after driving in smaller cars with instructors and finding them easy to drive I realized learning to drive in this vehicle will take me much longer to get things perfect than in a smaller car. My instructor would say if I learnt to drive in that car then I would be able to drive any car! In retrospect, now I have been driving my small car for over two years I have reduced confidence in driving my partner’s large dual cab ute but I continue to drive it from time to time to keep my skill set in touch with the larger vehicle.

I wanted my own car that was my car to learn to drive and the car I would be sitting my test for the Provisional licence and to use everyday. Having that second car meant my partner or other people with an open drivers licence could sit with me to drive. After taking driving lessons in a Hyundai i30 and Toyota Yaris, I wanted something in-between. It had to be small enough to be easy to park with not too many blind spots and not too small to lack safety and comfort features. I wanted something that had the best safety features I could afford. I was aiming for $10-15,000. But importantly, the car had to fit my road bike and mountain bike (not both at once though!) so I could drive to bunch ride meeting points, criterion racing and mountain bike parks.

With this I researched vehicles in this range in the second hand market. We spent several weekends going to car yards and test driving many different cars including new cars as I had my eye on the Suzuki Swift that was on sale. The day I arrived to test drive a Toyota Yaris at Gold Creek Motors in Gunghalin I saw a little white car behind the fence that was not there the last few times we visited so took it for a drive too. I was drawn to it as I always wanted a white car. My thinking is that white cars are easier for other drivers to see and cheaper insurance premiums. After the test drives and taking each car home to see if my bikes fit in the boot with the seats down – I bought the white Ford Fiesta! I was very pleased to learn it has five airbags and had a year and half warranty left! The car yard dropped it off to my place the next day.

From time to time I do drive my partner's car a Ford Ranger Wildtrack. Because I do not drive it regularly I'm not confident driving it. But it helps that it has some awesome features that compensate for its size, such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, forward collision alert, parking sensors and reversing camera. Here is a picture of me driving this car.

Here is a video of me driving this car. The trip was about an hour from Goulburn to Canberra. This car has a lot of adaptive features that make for easy driving. The mirrors are very big so I do not need to add blind spot mirrors.

Car adaptations

Lets face it, the world is built for 4 out of 5 people of the population without disability. So its reasonable adaptations are made to remove disability barriers to support participation. This is exactly what I am doing here. Sure, I can drive a car without these adaptations but adding them in my view frees up the cognitive processing to allow me to concentrate on observation skills.

Many people believe the reason older drivers have more accidents is because of failing eye sight. This is not supported by the research. Such misinformation also contributes to the stigma faced by all low vision drivers. The issue for older drivers is reduced cognitive processing with age. The reason the driver does not see the car in their blind spot is that they do not turn their head to look enough because cognitively they are consumed with what is happening in front of them. Thus in my view it makes sense to support these drivers with adaptions around freeing up cognitive processing for the driving task as this might allow them to experience the independence of driving longer. Getting back to low vision drivers, a 2005 International Council of Ophthalmology report states that people with vision as low as legally blind be given individual consideration for driving and include extra tests such as cognitive, functional and on road tests. In addition to the below on car adaptations, extra training supports low vision and older drivers such as those I talk about in my post about what I have learnt about safe driving practices.

As a new driver I wanted to adapt my car with features that would support safe driving practices. Here are the adaptions I made and why.

Blind spot mirrors

Blind spot mirror sitting on top of driver side mirror
Blind spot mirrors sit on top of the mirrors and allow me to see almost all around my car. I love these! They were recommended by my first driving instructor who was a disability driving instructor in NSW.

These are the ones I use but there are many others to choose (Medium Hercules Auxiliary Wide Angle Side View Blind Spot Mirror):

If you are interested in something like this, do your research on what option might suit you best. You may know that many non-disabled drivers buy a stick on blind spot dot mirror that is placed on the bottom corner of each side mirror. For me this is too small as I cannot distinguish the detail easily for comfort of use.

Digital heads-up speedo display

Digital heads up display showing '0' on windscreen. The unit can be seen attached to the dash matt on the dash. Under the dash matt is a foam sponge cut as a wedge to prop up the unit so the image on the screen is not distorted.
As I cannot see the analogue speedo to make a clear reading of my speed I installed a digital heads-up display. The unit sits on my dash and an opaque silver sticker is placed on the windscreen that makes the numbers have more contrast.

There are many types of models available. I wanted one that had the biggest possible number display with the highest contrast possible and the quickest user input to output display. The model I have is now discontinued but I bought it from Supercheap Auto for about $100. Importantly I wanted one that plugs into the OBDI port as that runs from the engine. I did not want a GPS model as there is a lag from user input to output display and relies on GPS availability.

In using a heads up display I found sometimes it is difficult to see, particularly when driving towards the sun. Thus I put in strategies to compensate. These include changing my driving route at certain times of the day or using cruise control. After driving for a couple of years I can judge my speed with relative accuracy and can maintain speed with other vehicles – where this is a short distance and I am familiar with the route.

I always make concerted efforts to ensure I am at or below the speed limit. This can be complicated in areas with multiple speed limits on one road or road works or unfamiliar areas. Later I'll post a blog about how manage this because there are techniques you can employ to improve your chances of maintaining accurate speed monitoring.

Here is a link to a similar model:

Dash Matt

Another issue with the placement of the unit on the dash is it needs something to attach. Also, the dark dash reflects back onto the back of the windscreen, more so at certain times of the day. To address these I bought a customised dash matt and no more issues! Here is a link to where I got my matt:

Parking sensors

Digital display of parking sensors
As a new driver I wanted front and rear parking sensors installed so I can learn to judge distances when parking – but not totally rely on them. Most new cars come with these even on the base model of cars but my 2015 model did not and even though people said my car is small so I don’t need them I still wanted them installed. I’m glad I did because I love that I can park in really tight places and my ability to judge is getting better.

The model I chose has both visual and voice output. In the picture you see 0.6 on the display along with a line flashing at the corner that is 60 centermeters near an object. It also beeps and says verbally to me "point six meters".

This unit is stuck to my windscreen on top of my rear view mirror. There are four round parking senses placed on the back bumper bar and four placed on the front bumper bar.

Here is a link to where I purchased the sensors and they also install them and match your paint:

Dash cam

Dash cam
Lastly, the video dash cam shows both through my front windscreen and on me as it is a dual channel dash cam. It also has ADAS (Advanced Driver Assist Safety) features such as forward collision alert. However I found those features didn’t work well for me and distracting so turned them all off. If I had to choose again, I would choose a simple model without extra features (like extra cost!).

As part of my cabin drill routine for starting the car and turning it off I plug in and pull out the dash cam from the cigarette lighter port. That way the camera is always on when I am driving. I have two high capacity memory cards that I exchange from time to time. The dash cam rewrites when it reaches the end of the card. I have to keep an eye on them as sometimes the device states the card needs formatting. If that doesn’t work, I format the card using a program on my computer.

From time to time I’ve captured some ordinary driving behaviour including pulling in front of me, being brake jacked on the freeway, driving in the bike lane. I also periodically check on my driving videos to analyse ways I may be able to improve my driving practices. The main reason though I had this installed is to protect myself. As a bioptic driver that difference would be used against me should there be an accident involving me. The cam means I know I am always on video and that keeps me honest to be the best driver I can be. It also means I catch others puting my life and other people's life in danger and if I am blamed for an accident I have the footage for the record.

Suggest you do research on what model would work for your needs and budget. Here is a review I found that might get you started:

I hope this information is helpful for anyone looking to consider how they can apply technology to their car to support safe driving practices.

What modifications have you made to your car? I’m always interested to learn about tech that may help.