Ushered to the front of the long, long queue of people waiting to sit the mandatory renewal of your licence eye-test were four ladies of a certain age. Mutterings of ‘unfair, unfair’ were inevitable. After all, progress was snail-like, measured in my case by two bladder stops thanks to my addiction to morning coffee. And so a couple of hours of musical chairs passed this way. Not helped by the regularity of the 3 testers leaving their station for several minutes, going nowhere in particular, it seemed, only to return, shuffle some papers, process one or two of us, repeat. They knew that we were captive, with this little dose of daily megalomania the only thing adding spice to their otherwise pitifully repetitive jobs. Part of me accepted this as a government employee syndrome inevitability, the other part commiserated with my bladder.
I have been told—rather irritatingly after my experience—that an optometrist can reproduce this test to the satisfaction of the authorities. But how true can this be if so many of us were there? One after the other these four women failed the test. Still, I’ll give the testers their due, they were all respectably patient with the four. So I concluded, as would any prejudiced armchair critic, that they shouldn’t drive if they couldn’t see. I thought it condescendingly sad to witness yet another cul-de-sac of life bearing down upon the old and infirm. And prohibition from driving must be one of the final straws, that of lost independence. No more daytrips to the shops to check out the specials, size up the fruit or pick up that a nice pudding. No popping over to friends, the church, family. All replaced by a demeaning reliance on others.
Then it was my turn. When last I sat this test in 2007, it was a cinch. You put your eyes to the machine, and were asked whether the little light was either up, down, left or right. And for peripheral vision, whether a separate flash was from the left or the right. You had to say the answer out loud. Now, however, there was a letter ‘E’ which switched axis as it rotated. You had to toggle a joystick to the desired position. Not as simple as before. What’s more, my particular joystick (why is it called that?) was sticky to the right. There was no talking, the tester looked to his computer for the answers he wanted.
And it was at that point that I realised that here was strong evidence of yet more dehumanising by computer, where what the computer says goes, no argument, no exceptions. And you can look to the utility bill fiasco in Johannesburg of not so long ago for proof of that.
It’s plain wrong. Here were four people prejudiced because of their age. Not necessarily because they couldn’t see well enough, but because they couldn’t toggle properly. I’m willing to bet on it that none have ever had to toggle anything and so have had to turn down invitations from a grandchild to play a computer game.
My late Mom, for example, had a very stand-off relationship with all things mechanical. Especially so with cars, which were her particular jinx. A few years after I was born, she put my Dad’s Ford Zephyr gently headfirst into a deep soft-dirt ditch and thought nothing of it. And neither did the car. After it was hauled out, there was no damage; it just needed a good wash. Our 60s Datsun/Nissan ‘Cedric’ 2000 estate was the first car in my experience to have an electric tailgate window. She managed to run that window up without the tailgate properly shut so that it missed its rubber tracks and jammed. It had to travel from Que Que (now Kwe Kwe) to the main dealer in the then Salisbury for the remedy. She curbed wheels, bumped poles, stalled frequently. She couldn’t start those carburettor cars when, at nine years old, I could show her how to. She never mastered the sweet little push-me, pull-you dashboard gear-lever on our Renault 4 and so never drove it.
That little masterpiece of engineering—a feat repeated some 12 years ago with coming of the Smart for2— had to go, replaced by an archaic Tatra V570 in drag, known to you and I as the VW beetle. She would leave our old Mercedes 220 S in second gear on dirt roads (where you couldn’t hear the motor) thinking she was in 4th. And in 4th when 2nd was wanted.
All told, she was a bad driver. But not a dangerous one. Not at all. Not once was there an incident that could have been called potentially life-threatening. Yet if she were to sit the eye-test today she would fail. Not because she couldn’t see, for she would read the entire newspaper every day right up until her death, but because I can guarantee that she just wouldn’t be able to master the toggle.
So why doesn’t the system make allowances for this? In the matter of the State versus Old People, it seems that bias rules the day.
And then we go out to dinner with friends of ours, and pistols at dawn it is. She is a fitness fanatic who cycles and jogs, sometimes both in one day. She doesn’t agree with me on the subject of old folk driving, not one bit. ‘They shouldn’t be allowed to drive,’ says she of the leisure for pleasure, run for fun life-style. ‘They’re a menace. They don’t stay behind you when it’s unsafe for them to pass. (By which is meant no less than 2 metres leeway in case the cyclist falls off.)
‘When you come up to a junction, they wait until you’re right there and then they go. And on pensioner’s discount Tuesdays you don’t go near Spar. They bump into each other.
‘They have no idea of “think bike, think cyclist, think pedestrian, think jogger”.’
The hairs are rising on my neck. ‘And your Mom? What about her?’ I ask.
‘That’s different, she’s a modern Mom. She knows how to use a laptop.’
And that’s my point proven. Like so many people as they get older, her Mom wears strong glasses. But she has a greater chance of passing the toggle eye-test because she can ‘compute’.
I’ve never been good with the ‘they-factor’. I call this ‘theyist’. I know that a failure to ‘think bike, think cyclist, think pedestrian, think jogger’ is certainly not confined to the elderly driver. And so I’ve got news for my iron-lady wannabe. I’ve seen school-run Moms squeeze cyclists off the road, tearing past them at a lick in SUVs full of beloved bundles. I’ve seen a police van do exactly the same thing. I’ve seen a jogger jump clear of a motorcycle overtaking a car on a blind rise. I’ve been honked at mercilessly (by a taxi) for waiting behind a cyclist until I got a ‘two meter rule’ gap. And I have myself nearly wiped out a cyclist because I hadn’t seen the slim profile advancing at speed.
But I’ve also seen joggers and cyclists two abreast, with many a snarling face and undignified gesture at any motorist who dares hoot at them. I’ve seen motorcyclists weave in and out of traffic at speed. Yet more who bob about left to right behind me, in and out of my blind spot so that I never quite know where they are, forcing me to rear-view mirror drive much more than I am comfortable with.
In truth, I’ve seen and experienced what are commonly referred to as road hazards that have little to do with poor vision, and much more to do with poor judgement, perceived immutable rights, arrant impatience and recklessness. They’re there for the taking. And it’s not the old and infirm who have the 1st bite of the hazard cherry like everyone thinks they do. Given this reality, would you be happy with being told to hand in your licence by a computer just because you thoughtlessly dipped your hand into this particular cookie-jar of road hazards with a bite and tripped up? Taking this up a notch, would you be happy if your indiscretions were automatically blamed on your age and assumed lack of vision by a computer? And all because you can’t ‘toggle-speak’ to it?
I wouldn’t be. I prefer trial by fact, not trial by computer.