Category Archives: Driving

Snow? Noooooooo!!

I don’t like the snow.  In fact, that’s an understatement.  I positively detest the stuff.  And before anyone starts accusing me of being a soft southerner, let me tell you that I was born and bred in Derbyshire, in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere.  There was a church and a pub and four farms, and that was it.  There were no buses, and it wasn’t unusual to see more horses than cars going past our house on some days.

One particularly brutal winter when we got snowed in, the snow drifted higher than the tall hedges lining the narrow country lanes and then froze solid.  I can’t remember how long we were stuck before a group of farmers managed to clear an icy tunnel through to the next village, but it was certainly a few days.  Whilst marooned, my sister and I busied ourselves in perfecting the art of sledging down hills on a thick blue plastic sack and attempting to build an igloo in the garden.  We never did figure out how to get the roof on.  Back then, I suppose the snow was kind of fun.  But as young children we didn’t have any responsibilities (unless you count cleaning our bedrooms, walking the dog, and getting the coal in for the fire) and we didn’t have to go anywhere in it.  However, even then I became aware that it wasn’t always fun, after my mum had a nasty skid on some ice whilst trying to turn up a hill.  My sister and I were in the back of the car at the time, and I’m not sure who was more terrified out of the three of us.

Since entering the realms of (allegedly) responsible adulthood, I’ve always hated the snow and, more particularly, the ice.  I don’t like driving or walking in slippery conditions and the fact that I’m a rather chilly mortal probably doesn’t help matters either.  My hands regularly turn an unattractive shade of blueish-purple in the cold, even when I’m wearing thick gloves.  I’m also very mindful of the advice of my second eye surgeon: “Don’t get a head trauma“.  Falling over and banging my head would not be a good idea.  So when ‘the Beast from the East’ was forecast, I found myself scanning the skies each day with a sense of impending doom.

It was on Monday evening that the frequent flurries finally began to settle as they fell onto the frozen ground.  Just before heading to bed, I peered out of the window and was relieved to see that they had stopped.  By morning, more snow had fallen but it didn’t look very deep so it was business as usual.  I stepped gingerly out of my house and walked carefully to the car, somewhat dazzled by the horrific brightness, despite having my giant sunglasses in place.  It was like being trapped inside a huge lightbox and being unable to escape.

“It’ll be fine”, I told myself sternly.  “You can’t put off driving in the snow forever because you’re scared – it was bound to snow sooner or later.”  You see, this was the first lot of substantial snowfall since my eye issues began in 2014, and hence my first time driving in the snow with waffy vision.  Needless to say, it wasn’t the best experience.  I had trouble focussing due to the all-pervading brightness and my road was very slippery.  I drove at the pace of a reluctant snail, sliding slightly as I navigated the corners, and then came to a slow-motion skid as I attempted to stop at the roundabout.  By this time it had started snowing heavily, making it even more difficult to  focus.  “Sod this”, I muttered through chattering teeth as I carefully manoeuvred the car around the roundabout and cautiously retreated back home.  Leaving my boots on the doormat in a small pile of snow, I shakily headed for the kettle, shivering more with nervousness than cold.  A hot cup of tea improves most situations, I find.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t prepared to risk life and limb trying to get in, and luckily my boss permitted me to work from home.  Even safely indoors, it felt as if the dratted white stuff was taunting me – it was so bright that I had to draw the curtains until they were almost fully closed. At least it helped to keep the heat in, I guess.  Anyway, it’s all gone now and that horrible glaring brightness has transformed into a soothing grey drizzle.  I’ve never been so pleased to watch the rain fall…

Sunrise in a snowy street

Sunrise in the snow


Q: How long does it take to buy a new (used) car?

A: Three years, eight months, and four days.

I decided I needed to trade in the Toyota Yaris I’d owned since 2005 on precisely 25 March 2014, after wincing as I paid the third hefty bill within the space of two months.  I worked out that within that time I’d spent over a grand on what I’d started referring to as my financial drain on wheels, and my friend warned me that if I carried on at that rate I may as well just weld a new car onto the wing mirror.  I was clearly already halfway down that slippery slope of paying an extortionate repair bill, hanging onto the car to get my money’s worth out of it, and then ending up with further extortionate repair bills in the meantime.  Enough was enough, and I resolved that my car would go before reaching its next service and MOT.

Less than a month later, my retina detached.  Following surgery, I was unable to drive for two months.  Then, just a couple of weeks after starting to get back to some sort of normality and driving once more, the damn thing detached again.  And then again.  And again.  And… well, you get the picture.  In among all these detachments and surgeries and slow recoveries was a stressful and ironically long road trip to undergo testing by the DVLA to ensure that I satisfied the medical standards for safe driving.  (You can read about this in my post Road hogs and road rage, if you’re interested.)  So naturally, as I was worried about whether or not I’d even be able to continue driving at all, a new car was the last thing on my mind.  Fortunately, Ioannis the Yaris (yes, my cars tend to be given names) rallied after his 2014 assault on my savings and practically sailed through the next three years of services and MOTs.  Despite this, the dodgy-sounding rattles increased, as did my local garage’s friendly warnings that such and such would need to be replaced soon, or there was “some wear and tear” in this component, and “give and play” in that part.  Ioannis was definitely on borrowed tyres.

After my May 2017 check up appointment at Moorfields, when they agreed to monitor me six months later rather than planning further surgery, I decided that now was the time to change my car.  And then I procrastinated.  I procrastinated right up to a few weeks before that six month check up in November 2017, at which point I decided to take some action rather than simply browsing the websites of various garages.  I spotted a little Toyota Aygo which was within my price range and emailed the link to a friend who has far more car-buying experience than I do.  She pinged a message back: “I like that one… Can you test drive that one?  Its number plate is MVR… we could call him Maverick..?!”.  So I booked a test drive, and she came along with me for moral support.

I felt like a learner again and managed to stall the car on my first attempt to drive it off.  This was after I’d spent a considerable amount of time adjusting all the mirrors to ensure I could see as much as possible.  I’d already decided not to confess to the friendly salesman that I’m unable to see much out of my right eye as I didn’t want to have to contend with a nervous passenger on top of everything else.  Once I’d got used to Maverick, I rather liked him.  My friend egged me on, telling me I should just go for it.  She’d already warned me some months previously that I was in danger of creating a deep groove in the road, from literally running Ioannis right into the ground.  But I just couldn’t bring myself to put a deposit down on a new car before my next check-up at Moorfields as it felt too much like tempting fate.

So I waited, and worried about what my consultant might find when he looked into my pesky peepers.  In the meantime, each time I drove past the Toyota garage, I had a quick scan to see if Maverick was still there.  He was.  Until the Saturday after my appointment, when I glanced up and saw that… [cue dramatic music]… Maverick had GONE!  Completely vanished!  I gasped in shock and then returned to reality.  “Oh well”, I said to myself as I drove juddering Ioannis along the road.  “It wasn’t surprising really – a good little car with a low mileage which had even been reduced in price within the last few weeks.  And it’s only a car, anyway.”  But just in case, I rang the garage the next day to check.  Fortunately, I managed to amend my question of, “Is Maverick still there?” just in time and received the surprising answer that yes, that particular car was still available.

After a second test drive (I didn’t stall that time) and a thorough examination of the car, I found myself in the unexpected position of actually making a decision and even putting down a deposit.  Before I could say, “but I need to procrastinate”, the paperwork was done and a collection date had been agreed.  My friend came with me to collect the car.  She said she wanted to make sure I didn’t change my mind.  “I know what you’re like”, she told me sternly, “I can just imagine you driving off in the new car and then screeching to a halt, reversing back, and saying, “Oh, but how much for that lovely silver Yaris?  The one with the vintage paintwork and unique markings down the driver’s side, and the artistically-placed dents?””.  “Well, I will be quite sorry to see Ioannis go”, I admitted.  “You SEE!”, she declared triumphantly, “You just can’t be trusted on your own!”.

Needless to say, I didn’t do that, although I did cast an apologetic look towards Ioannis as I slowly manoeuvred  Maverick out onto the road, clutching the steering wheel at ten to two as if my life depended on it.  We’d only travelled down the road and turned left at the roundabout when I glanced in my rear-view mirror and exclaimed in a panic, “Oh no!  There’s a police car behind me now!” . My friend smoothly switched into her best policewoman voice, “Control… yes, Emma’s just picked up a new car and she’s driving erratically.  We’re following her.  Over.”.  “Stop it – I need to concentrate!”, I protested, whilst trying not to laugh.  “She’s just turned left into Sturry Road”, continued my friend, making the sound of a crackling radio before returning to her normal voice and telling me in slightly disappointed tones, “Oh, it’s okay, Em, they’ve gone the other way now.”.

As I drove home later that day, I thought to myself that really I could do with ‘beware, I’m getting used to a new car’ plates.  A bit like P plates for new drivers, but perhaps they should say ‘NC’ instead.  But anyway – I made it home in one piece and am gradually getting used to my new little motor.

The morals of this story are threefold:

  1. Do not name a car before buying it.
  2. Don’t worry about huge car repair bills, as there are far, far more concerning things which can happen to us (like multiple retinal detachments, for example).
  3. Don’t procrastinate.  Unless you have an imminent eye appointment.  Or you’re unsure of the best thing to do.

Note: Grateful thanks to my friend, who managed to turn the serious business of buying a car into something of a comedy sketch of which Victoria Wood herself would be proud. 😀

Headlight horror

The Friday before the clocks went back, my boss caught me just as I was about to leg it for freedom and announced, “We need to talk about your hours.”  “Do we?” I asked, my heart sinking as I remembered the last lot of discussions about my hours in conjunction with Occupational Health which had been both extremely unhelpful and incredibly stressful.  “The clocks go back at the weekend”, my boss informed me.  I suppressed the urge to snap that I was fully aware of this fact as I’d spent the past few weeks dreading the prospect of driving home in the dark with tired and aching eyes after a full day spent staring at the ruddy computer screen.  However, he seemed to realise this as he suggested, “Why don’t you just come in at 8 and leave at 4?”  So that was that  – the decision was made.

Getting up an hour earlier has been no problem for me due to my insomniac tendencies.  Travelling to work earlier has brought the bonus of less traffic, no queues getting onto campus, and unlimited choice in selecting a parking space (a rare treat indeed).  Similarly, leaving earlier has meant no queues getting off campus, less traffic on the way home and, most importantly of all, not having to summon up extra amounts of energy from depleted supplies in straining my weary eyes in the dark.  The concentration required for night-driving is so intense that frequently at the end of a journey I will physically have to force my shoulders down to their correct position below my ears and massage my forehead in an effort to relieve some of the tightness before reaching for my soothing eye drops.

Night-driving has been far more difficult since my eye problems began, and I know that this is an issue which many of my eye buddies share.  I will now only drive short distances in the dark and I minimise night-driving wherever possible.  The night vision in my right eye is considerably reduced.  Obviously this is partly a result of the damage to my retina caused by all the detachments, as well as the silicone oil in it which causes everything to appear very blurred – a bit like when you open your eyes underwater.  My three retinectomies and 360 degree laser surgery also means that I’ve lost a fair amount of peripheral vision, which makes things more difficult anyway but this problem is amplified in the dark.  The retina contains two types of photoreceptors – rods and cones.  The rod cells are concentrated at the outer edges of the retina and are used in peripheral vision as well as being almost entirely responsible for night vision.  (In case you’re wondering, the cones are most densely packed in the centre of the retina and these are responsible for our central vision and colour vision.)  As the lower outer edge of my retina has been physically trimmed away and the rest of the edge has been rendered useless due to the 360 degree laser surgery, I’m guessing that this is the reason for my appalling night vision in that eye.  To get a very rough idea of what my vision is like in the dark, have a look at the final photo in my blog post, ‘Do you see what I see?’.  Bear in mind that this represents my vision on a relatively well-lit road.  If I close my ‘good’ eye on an unlit road, I can barely make out the car directly in front of me – it just becomes a blurry smudge along with everything else.  (Note: I only indulge in this particular visual experiment when my car is stationary!)

It’s not so bad driving on well-lit roads as apart from the added bonus of more light, this also means less likelihood of drivers cruising along with their headlights on full-beam.  Narrow, winding, unlit country lanes are a different story, as around each bend lurks the danger of a vehicle hurtling towards me with its headlights dazzling my remaining vision.  Such encounters are usually greeted by me with an explosion of expletives (depending, of course, on whether or not I have any passengers in the car at the time).  Other irritations include cars with misaligned headlights, tailgaters, those horrible extra-bright dazzling headlights, bicycles with no lights, pedestrians walking along the road wearing dark clothes, and the well-intentioned but somewhat painful flash of the headlights meant as a gesture of thanks but received by myself like a slap in the face.

The Highway Code actually states, “Only flash your headlights to let other road users know that you are there.  Do not flash your headlights to convey any other message or intimidate other road users.”  Unfortunately, most drivers ignore this rule.  Many’s the time I’ve stopped behind a parked car on my side of the road to let an oncoming  stream of traffic pass, muttering to myself, “Please don’t flash your lights, please don’t flash your lights, don’t flash, don’t flash, aaagh, you ******!” in response to the inevitable.  I don’t flash my lights to say thank you to other drivers, although I must admit that I have been guilty of this in the past.  Instead, I just raise a hand, somehow hoping that the other driver will know that I’ve thanked them, secure in the knowledge that if that driver has had multiple surgeries for retinal detachments, they’ll be silently thanking me in return.

Of course, despite all this, I’m hugely thankful that the vision in my left eye is still good enough to allow me to drive.  If I had to give up driving, I’d have to move house as the public transport where I live is both appalling and ridiculously expensive.  So I’ll continue to motor on sensibly, whilst muttering and swearing at all the road hogs out there and looking forward to 21 December, after which date the hours of daylight will very slowly but surely start to increase once more.

Note: If any sciencey people out there could possibly let me know whether I’m correct in my assumption about the rods and night vision, it would be much appreciated. 🙂

Road hogs and road rage

I don’t generally use swear words very much, being of the opinion that over-use of bad language simply dilutes the effect, thus rendering it rather pointless.  However, since my eye issues I have found it increasingly necessary to resort to expletives when out on the roads.  The main triggers at the moment are issues related to driving in the dark.  As it’s currently dark in the UK soon after 4pm, driving in darkness is not something which can be easily avoided, although I do minimise it as much as possible and only do short local journeys in the dark these days.  Even so, it’s a challenge.  Cars with misaligned headlights, cars with headlights at full beam hurtling towards me on dark roads with no streetlights, and the misguided flashing of headlights as a gesture of thanks when I let a car through, or even when obediently waiting behind an obstruction on my side of the road as directed by the Highway Code.  This kind of road hog type behaviour is typically greeted from behind the wheel of my little Yaris by exasperated growls and occasionally pained squeals of “Put your *bleep bleep* lights down!”, “Get your *bleep bleep* headlights sorted out!”, and “Thank you very *bleep bleep* much, you *bleeping* idiot!”  I’ve learned, in certain situations, to adjust my focus to the side of the road or slightly beyond the oncoming car in order to minimise the dazzling assault on my eyes, but unfortunately this isn’t always possible.

In contrast, the main difficulty of driving in daylight is a very bright sun, particularly when it’s low in the sky.  I tend to drive wearing my GIANT dark glasses in daylight, regardless of how sunny it is, because it just makes things far more comfortable for my eyes and also means that I’m less conscious of the floaters in my ‘good’ eye, which can be extremely distracting at times.

Of course, a few people have expressed surprise that I’m still able to drive, and at one point I wasn’t entirely convinced that I would be allowed to continue.  After my first two lots of surgery, my consultant at that time happily told me that I didn’t need to inform DVLA of my eye problems because my left eye was okay, and it’s legal to drive in this country with just one eye.  Me being me, I double-checked DVLA’s website, which stated that if a person had undergone surgery in one eye, no action was necessary; but if they’d had surgery in both eyes, DVLA should be informed.  I’d had cryotherapy in my left eye to mend two retinal tears but I assumed this wasn’t classed as ‘surgery’ and I was therefore okay.  I did, however, inform my car insurance company at that point, and was met with a pleasingly indifferent response.

Upon questioning my surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital about the DVLA issue after surgery number three, I was advised to inform them but told that I was fine to continue driving.  When I  checked the DVLA website again, I spotted that their wording had changed, and now advised people that they must declare it if they’d had ‘retinal treatment’ in both eyes, but it wasn’t necessary if ‘retinal treatment’ had been undergone in only one eye.  Damnit.  I duly completed the necessary form on the DVLA website and posted it off, and then waited for a good couple of months whilst continuing to drive in the meantime.  Eventually, a letter bearing a DVLA stamp dropped through my letterbox and I opened it to read a terse communication ordering me to select one of the DVLA approved opticians and ring to make an appointment by a certain deadline; warning me that if I did not do so, I would be in danger of having my driving licence revoked and a fine issued.  The general tone of the missive was akin to the Associate Dean’s warning letters which we issue to students who don’t attend lectures or submit any coursework, and I could almost feel the steam rising from my ears as I read through it a second time.  To add insult to injury, the closest DVLA approved opticians to my house was Dover, which is a good 40 minutes’ drive away.  Hmm… so DVLA wanted me to attend a sight test to determine whether or not I was medically fit to drive, but in order to do so they appeared to be quite happy for me to drive 40 minutes there, and 40 minutes home again.  Genius!

Nevertheless, I duly booked the test and went along.  My irritation was not helped when the optometrist conducting my test began by asking me whether I knew what my diagnosis was.  I bit back a caustic response, and answered shortly, “Yes”, to which he enquired what the diagnosis was.  “Retinal detachment”, I replied, sighing internally.  “Is that in one eye or both eyes?”, he asked.  I stared at him in disbelief, wondering whether I should ask to see his qualifications, and then explained slowly as one would to someone who is incredibly stupid that it was my right eye, and I doubted very much whether I would have been able to drive at all if my left eye was in the same state as my right eye.  This point was underlined rather effectively when he covered my left eye and asked me to read the letters on the chart, whereupon I informed him that I couldn’t even see the chart.  He rattled through the rest of the sight test, and looked slightly taken aback when I asked him what figures he had noted for my visual acuity.  “I’m not allowed to tell you that – the data has to be sent straight off to DVLA and then they’ll contact you about whether or not you can continue driving.”  Now, as my boss pointed out later when I was telling him this story through gritted teeth, they actually had no right to withold my own data from me, but at the time I was so frustrated by the whole thing that I simply treated him to my very best glare (the one which has on occasion caused small children to cry) and told him that I already knew what my visual acuity was in both eyes but I wanted to make sure he’d got it correct.

I stomped out of the opticians, drove the 40 minutes home (pah!) and consoled myself with strong tea and a large quantity of chocolate biscuits.  I then waited another couple of months for the results from DVLA.  Happily, they agreed with the surgeon at Moorfields who had said that I could continue driving.  During the months of waiting, I’d been contemplating writing a strongly worded letter to DLVA about their less than satisfactory procedures, but upon receiving this news I decided that my energy was probably better spent in blowing a giant raspberry at them and focussing on the business of getting on with driving.  Now if any drivers reading this could please just stop flashing their headlights as a way of thanking other drivers, check that headlights are properly aligned, and dip headlights in good time on dark country lanes, that would be grand… 🙂