Driving While Blind


?YOu may have heard recently, of the development of a vehicle which will be drivable by blind and visually impaired people. I believe this vehicle is scheduled to be demoed sometime in 2011 and I’m sure this will be quite an interesting event. I for one will most certainly be watching this one closely.


as you may guess, since you’re reading this post here on Blind Controversial, that my views on this are characterized by a bit more than the usual cool factor, and you’d be right, but let’s start with said cool factor and work from there…


I, like many others in this community would absolutely love the freedom to drive a car. this would (in itself) be such a huge boon for me that it wouldn’t even be funny. The need for the ability to have meaningful, autonomous transportation is of tremendous import in the visually impaired community, and I’d go further to say that this need is not even given the kind of attention it truly deserves in many cases.


Most people take driving for granted, and perhaps some even view it as a right. So it seems logical that since we’re finally able to employ technologies in concert with each other which will make it possible for the visually impaired community  to command a motor vehicle, that this is a no brainer, yes? -We should finally have the right to drive, to get ourselves from point A to point B on our own!… While I too think this would be absolutely fabulous, examine this with me a bit further if you would…


Let me start by relating a story a friend told me, of a conversation they were having with a driver whom, while sighted enough to get a license, still needed extreme vision correction in the form of fairly elaborate glasses in order to drive. this person was adamant that the visually impaired should be able to drive and that driving was his right. -He said this while spilling milk, overflowing his coffee cup because he wasn’t able to see it clearly enough.


I know everyone makes mistakes. We all do. However, I must ask, is it someone’s right to maneuver a large heavy metal object at speed thereby endangering everyone around them, when they cannot even poor a cup of coffee without issue?… Is driving a right? I’d say no, it’s a privilege, and one which needs to be enjoyed with the greatest of care.


Now, obviously, every day, we hear of plenty of fully sighted people who don’t take the kind of care they should while driving a motor vehicle. This goes without saying. However, this is a choice they make. this is not based on a situation where a very important sense (sight) which is inherently needed in some form or another, to operate a vehicle, is missing or profoundly diminished. I.E. Even though a reckless sighted driver may be lax in their judgment, they at least have some chance of working with the vehicle they drive as they have the necessary means (via sight) to at least attempt to drive safely.


I bring this all up, in turn, to discuss the new vehicle in question and basically its concept. This approach is unique in the sense that its developers are not trying to create an automated vehicle where a blind person idly sits behind the wheel while the car drives itself. No, this vehicle is revolutionary in the fact that it will employ a number of intricately-related systems whereby a blind driver can actually receive many types of feedback on their surroundings and the operation of the vehicle so that they can then control the vehicle themselves. This is (from my understanding) not to be a computer-driven car, but a fully adapted vehicle by which a blind or visually impaired person can autonomously get themselves (and presumably others as well) from point A to point B as an average sighted driver does on a daily basis.


Again, on the outset, this seems quite the amazing feat, does it not?… This is truly a breakthrough to be hallowed, and I say this sincerely. However, let’s again look at this further, with an all-too-common situation a sighted driver may face.


YOu’ve just turned off a main road and are now cruising your residential streets in your neighborhood. YOu’ve finished work and are just chilling. YOu’re almost home, and suddenly a ball flies out in front of your car, followed immediately by a laughing child paying absolutely no attention whatsoever to your oncoming vehicle. What do you do?


As you know, this sort of thing happens far to often. It could be an adult not paying attention to their surroundings, an animal running out into the road, or any number of other unforeseen circumstances. My point is that a sighted driver has the prerequisite ability to see a large area in front of them and react very quickly. I’ve been sighted. I know what it’s like to drive a car. the kinds of decisions one needs to make quickly at times, based on the environment can be intense.


I question the abilities of a system like the one being developed to be able not only to communicate all of the information necessary for a blind person to be able to adapt to new and unexpected situations with the kind of visceral, -split-second reactions necessary to be safe in regular day-to-day driving environments. Furthermore, I’d also posit that even if such a system could deliver this kind of vastly detailed information to a blind driver, that many blind people don’t have the kind of developed visual concepts that go into making an action like driving, safe. This isn’t even touching on the fact that technology fails. What if this happens at such a crucial time? A non-sighted driver has no sight to fall back on.


Now, having said the above, I’d love to be proven wrong on both of these points. I truly would, but I’ll ask you this; how would you feel as a blind driver if one of the above situations happened to you and you couldn’t account for it? How would you feel if you had a child and there was a blind driver in your neighborhood? Remember, this vehicle is not meant to drive for the driver, it’s meant specifically to only give the necessary info for the visually impaired driver to use to make their own decisions…


As harsh as my above implications may seem, this is the real world. I can’t personally support the concept of blind drivers at this stage of the game. Roads can be crazy enough with fully sighted drivers on them. YOu’ve often heard the statement that one might not be worried about one’s own driving abilities but the abilities of others on the road. This applies here too, as I’ve mentioned above. Even if a blind driver is a good one, others on the road can add so very many variables to this equation that it (to me at least) seems like a very dangerous prospect to say the very least.


Now, having said all of this, how can this concept of blind drivers be made more palatable to someone like me with concerns? One way is via automation.


Place fail-safe back-up systems into the vehicle which override the driver in the case the vehicle comes too close to something. similar types of warning systems are already in place as well as other computer controlled systems (for good or ill) on vehicles where the car’s acceleration is managed under certain conditions by the car’s onboard computer, overriding the driver. so this isn’t by any means,a far-fetched request.


I also feel that adding the ability to the car to fully automate and drive itself if necessary would also go far to alleviate concerns. I’m not only speaking of my own concerns here, but I’d speculate that a great many sighted people would feel similarly. -And, perhaps when all (sighted and non-sighted) drivers have an option for the vehicle to drive itself, perhaps then the idea of blind driving will be a bit more accepted. Similar to the way that cruise control in some form or another is ubiquitous now.


So would the blind community be opposed to such systems that override their authority while driving? I think this gets back to the ‘driving is a right’ argument. As with most sighted drivers, I think it would probably annoy many blind people, and I wonder if there isn’t just a bit of over-compensation going on here. Why are such fail-safe computer controlled systems not apparently being developed for this vehicle? Why is it so very important that this vehicle be exclusively piloted by the blind person and only that person, with absolutely no assistance in essence? Furthermore, in general, why is so much money being spent on a project like this when proven technologies that are already well-accepted and understood could be enhanced to make a real difference for the better for many people in everyday life? For instance, why are there still inaccessible pin pads at checkout counters everywhere? why are paratransit systems still horribly inadequate? What about mobile scanning and OCR technology? Why isn’t more money and research being directed there to make it still better and more affordable for everyone? these are just a few  important questions that need asking. So again I ask, Why is money being spent on something like blind driving; a vastly complex and tremendously costly undertaking which even at best, may not be available for several years?… what is the rationale at work here?…


I don’t mean to cloud the issue, but these points are valid. Do we, as blind and visually impaired people really want to drive so badly that we’ll narrow our view away from practicality and good judgement?


Now anyone who knows me knows that I tend to embrace new technologies, and despite all I’ve said here, I’m quite simply utterly intrigued and excited about this. I’d not only love to experience such a vehicle and its vast array of technology, but would also love very much to get behind it as a concept as well. I’d absolutely love, love, love to be proven completely wrong on my points above. I want this to work fabulously and safely, and I want to drive it! 🙂


I just think that (judging on what I know) this may not quite yet be the time for such a beast to exist successfully and safely for the general visually impaired consumer and general public as well. What do you think? Are my views off-base?… Do you have any insights or info that I haven’t touched on here? Have I inadvertently misrepresented or misstated anything?


Please by all means, do share if you will, and know that I sincerely appreciate your taking time to read this:


I wish you the best and drive safely!… 🙂


17 Replies to “Driving While Blind”

  1. I think you’ve written a well-balanced article, and I feel that your concerns are very valid. Nevertheless, I am also very excited about this development. How cool would it be able to drive a car?

  2. Why do we have to use the street to gt somewhere, why not a parapropter. Fly you ask? Yes, i deadly serious. A parapropter is a backpack with an airfoil and a small engine. it flies about 30 MPH and has a ceiling about 5000 feet. It is possible for a person to take off from a standing position without requiring a lot of space. Power lines, now are all coded in most gis databases that city utility companys use and all that is needed to make sure other aircraft know that you might be flying is a beacon that would squawk the type of aircraft you are flying and I would even support the FAA mandating a blind person having such a device. No you could not fly durring a storm but this would allow a person to move in an area where there is no such worry about other drivers and far fewer variables that would need to be contended with once you got off the ground. Even if every blind person in the U.s had such a device, there would not be enough flying at any given time to cause congestion. Clearly serious amounts of testing would have to be performed before such a craft could come to existance, but the technology does exist for such craft. All that is needed is some fabrication and testing. Having flown a paraproper I can say that it is extremely safe and fun to boot.

  3. I’m with you on this one Cara. After driving with sighted assistance for a fundraiser last year only reinforced my want to drive myself. The thought of not having to rely on others or indeed depend on public transport is an ideal solution in many situations. However, my concerns of safety are present. I think waiting and seeing what these developers come up with is crucial and if they are proven to be safe, I.E. automated back ups, I’d definitely at least try one out. The pros as it stands do not outweigh the cons but this could change. And in regard to your point on other accessible implementations that are seemingly being ignored, I believe this is a lack of education and or a lack of understanding maybe. It’s our job to educate those sighted developers who are trying to make every day occurrences normal across the board. Sadly, there are far too many political issues in regards to blind specific products and I shall not clog your blog with such issues. But it is the sad truth that some are frozen out because such technologies, no matter how expensive, already exist. in regard to your pin pad check out reference, they are relatively accessible here in the UK, unlike the ones I’ve experienced in the US that tend to be touch. That’s a governmental issue in my opinion. But awesome article. 🙂

  4. Great points. Personally, I believe that only when all vehicles are automated, taking the human factor out of driving completely, will we see the blind allowed to drive. They could call this the autocar, because it would be automatic and the driver would be only another passenger. If sensors and other related technology were implemented on all vehicles, it would only take entering the destination to one’s autocar to make the trip; the autocar does the rest. The autocar would back up from one’s driveway after sensors verified the road was clear, then head in the proper direction and merge into traffic using sensors for awareness of oncoming vehicles, but also communicate its presence to other autocars who react accordingly to the merging vehicle. No human reaction such as somebody who is in a hurry and doesn’t want to yield the right of way.

    While we have the input and feedback coming which allows a blind person to drive the car today, I think there is a ways to go before it is safe, and, more importantly, that public perception can be swayed that would allow this to take place. I am wholeheartedly behind the research that has begun and encourage innovation. I think we have a great start here, but there’s a ways to go.

    One of the most difficult issues for me to accept when I was blinded at age 31 was the loss of independent travel. Before, I could hop into my car and go wherever I wanted and now, I must coordinate my travel with those who can drive. Its been 17 years and I still miss that independence, but wouldn’t want to do this until I know I could do so safely, especially in the emergency situations where my reactions could mean life or death for somebody else like in the scenario you propose with the child and ball.

  5. Cara,

    Great article and great points raised. The research is interesting, however as I did in my ProTools thesis for school, I have to bring economics into the argument.

    Let’s say they invented an automatic car tomorrow, drivable by the blind and completely safe. Let’s also say that a company were to market the car and take orders for it. How would the average blind person pay for it, especially considering that 70% of the blind are unemployed? What would the insurance costs be? There would also need to be a fully accessible infrastructure to support the running of the vehicle, such as an accessible gas pump. The economic costs cold be quite staggering not only to build an accessible and drivable car, but also to support the running of that car.

    These are just questions to think about. As much as I’d like a drivable vehicle, I’d have to wonder what would happen with a “Detour” sign, road construction or an amusement park parking lot.

    I agree with you that much more needs to be done in other areas of research. I do hope however, that I can be one of those lucky folks who gets to experience driving up PCH with the top down on a sunny summer’s day.


  6. Hey great post, and I enjoy reading your thoughts. I think this car if even workable will be more for people with some sight first. I think at this point and time no matter what they say totally blind people will not be able to drive. We first off would face so many hurdles such as insurance. The NFB had to fight for a couple to have the right to keep their baby for Christ sakes and you people think we’re going to be able to drive? That sounds harsh, but reality sucks sometimes. I also don’t trust computers totally at this point every so crashes, and cannot be held accountable in all conditions. Maybe one day, but I think were still at least 20 years off if not longer. I think we should not be hoping for this, but maybe worry about the 70 percent of us that aren’t getting jobs.

  7. Hi Cara,

    I loved reading your post. You are an excellent writer. I really think you have some valid points. SOme of them I hadn’t even thought of. I was having this conversation with my friend Bryan a few weeks ago, and we were both saying how exciting and scary this is at the same time. I mean, don’t get me wrong, like everyone else who has commented I’d love to be able to drive a car, but would it really be safe? That’s the thing that would concern me the most. The scenario you described about the animal or small child running out in the middle of the road happens far too often. What happens in that case if the technology fails? What does the blind driver do? Thank you for this wonderful post, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on many other issues. Have a wonderful day.


Leave a Reply