Today, Sarah and I had a lovely trip out, all the way up to sunny Newcastle! Our mission: my driving assessment to decide what controls I need/like, and check I am safe to drive using hand controls. Safe to say, the mission was a success, and I am one happy Sam!
Our day began with Sarah collecting me from the hospital, and we headed for a Mazda dealership. The last few days we have been looking at cars available to me under the Motability scheme, and this was the next on our list. We actually ended up in SEAT, where the Ateca quickly caught our joint eye. Spacious, comfortable and stylish, it ticks all the boxes. The problem now is that we have three cars in mind, the aforementioned Ateca along with a Skoda Karoq and a Nissan Qashqai, and we haven’t yet looked everywhere we need to. But oh well, there’s worse things in the world than being spoilt for choice.
Once we had looked and got some prices (surprisingly reasonable) we headed for the open road, otherwise known as the A19. After a pit stop at McDonalds, we reached our destination of the North East Drive Mobility centre. I was greeted by two lovely ladies (whom I won’t name as I forgot to ask permission) and from there, my assessment began. We discussed my medical history, my needs, my medications etc and how all of this affected my ability to drive. Despite having no use of my legs, they quickly put me at ease that I would be at no disadvantage by driving with my hands. We moved on to talking about my driving experience, what I wanted to gain from the day, and how they could help me. There are many options available for those requiring hand control over a vehicle, and rather than talking theoretically, we headed for a car.
My steed for the day was to be a mighty Honda Jazz, obviously known as a force to be reckoned with in the car world – or maybe not. Despite having all the power of a sleeping slug, I was surprised at how spritely the little car was. It was kitted out with 3 separate modes of hand operation, and before anyone asks, yes it was an automatic. We headed out of the garage onto a purpose built mini track, which was a figure of 8 design with different road features and obstacles such as hills and tight turns. I was going to try each of the available controls one by one on the track, and decide which I liked best.
The first option I tried was a trigger accelerator and push brake combo, operated with my right hand, with a steering ball on the left. There were controls for indicators, lights and the horn on a remote also on my right hand, which was a very good setup for me. It felt strangely natural, and after a few laps I was beginning to feel rather comfortable. I also tried a different steering ball; one with controls for all the vehicle’s electric functions controlled by the left hand. I didn’t fare so well with this; it felt uncomfortable to try and indicate and turn with the same hand, especially considering it was less of a ball and more a teardrop shape. Next, I moved onto an over- ring setup; a small ring above and just inside the steering wheel, which accelerated the vehicle when pushed inwards. The brake control was the same, and I was back to indicating with my braking hand. Of all the options I tried, this was by far my least favourite. It felt awkward and clunky, and my control was not anywhere near as smooth as it was with the trigger. I did manage to improve in the few minutes I tried it, but the feeling of a lack of control remained, so that option was binned. Finally, I tried a ‘ghost ring’ option: similar to the over ring, a disk was fitted behind the steering wheel. This time, however, to accelerate the disk could be twisted clockwise or anti clockwise, either way resulted in a purr from that Jazz engine. This felt very unnatural at first, but as I looped round and round, it jumped ahead of the over ring. I felt I could master it with more practice. With each option, I tried turning both ways, speeding up and slowing down, and a hill start. I guess it counts as cheating performing a hill start with an auto box, but I enjoyed it all the same. After trying all options, I had to pick which configuration I liked best as we were going to head out onto the mean streets. Obviously, I chose the trigger and normal steering ball. After a quick emergency stop test, we were off!
I headed out of the centre, and into a nearby housing estate. Although it’s only been 5 and a half months, the rush I got from being back on the road in control of a vehicle was immense. I suddenly forgot all about my injury, and felt like myself again. We weaved around the housing estate for a while and, all too quickly, it was time to return to the centre. Even those short 20 or so minutes out and about really did remind me of why I loved driving. I even reversed back into the garage, just to prove to myself I could still do it. One of my assessors said I took to the new way of control like a duck to water; what a lovely compliment that was.
We then headed back inside, where after a few more discussions about control options, I went on a simulator rig to try one final method; a push/ pull bar. It’s exactly as it sounds: there is a bar held on the right side of the wheel, the car accelerates when you pull it and brakes when you push it. Although not a true representation as the rig was ageing a bit, I quite liked this method.
After a bit more chat getting information about adaptation specialists and other options available, it was time to leave. I can’t thank the staff at NE Drive Mobility enough; the option of being able to drive will really help me, and the ladies looking after me couldn’t have been any more professional, friendly or helpful if they tried.
It was then time for myself and Sarah to head home. It was great getting to spend a day out with her; although she couldn’t come in the car with us, the drive up and down gave us time to talk, and we even had a mini date stopping for some tea on the way home. I’m lucky to have her to run me around to appointments like these, it would be so much more difficult for me to have such a good quality of life if she wasn’t here next to me. Love you babe!
Overall, today has been a huge success. Admittedly I was very nervous, but I soon relaxed with the help of the centre staff and Sarah, and I really enjoyed the whole experience. If you ever need their services, the centre comes highly recommended. Now, all that’s left for me to do is to save up and get a car and my adaptations, and you’ll never stop me!