…you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”
I had never thought about the role of my car in the fabric of my life until I lost my driving licence a month ago.
As a diabetic I’m allowed only a 3-year licence. Every 36 months I must justify to the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) why I should be allowed to continue to drive. Every 36 months I reassure them that I look after my diabetes and don’t get hypoglycaemic attacks (excessively low blood sugar), though of course I know when my glucose levels are going down beyond my comfort zone, and what I should do about it.
This year I had a 10 second episode with my left eye, when a third of my vision went grey. I told my doctor, and the health system went into overdrive getting me checked for a TIA or minor stroke (I hadn’t had one), plus eye hospital checks, retinopathy checks, diabetes checks at every level, monitoring and so on. Everything came up negative. So when the usual paperwork came through from the DVLA I knew I must tell them about this, and I did so in detail, with dates and details of all medical appointments.
I wasn’t entirely surprised when they replied that they required me to see my GP during which he should complete their own tick questionnaire. During the interview, one of the questions the doctor asked me was whether I was aware of an impending hypoglycaemic attack.
“Oh yes, very much so”, I replied, and described the symptoms. “Good”, he said, and ticked the Yes box. Unbeknown to me at the time, the question had been phrased in the negative, i.e. “is the driver unaware of an impending hypoglycaemic attack?” The No box should therefore have been ticked. A double negative…
Two weeks later I received a letter from the DVLA telling me my driving licence had been revoked because I clearly could not identify when I had low blood sugar. I could re-apply in 12 months for a new licence provided I could satisfy them that I had learned to do so.
12 MONTHS!! That was when I realised how important my car is to me – transport to and from my employment at two Bristol hospitals, part-time driver to my 85-year old partner, impulse shopper, visits to relations and friends on the south coast, running down to the local shop for a missing ingredient while preparing a meal, space to rant, laugh and cry in peace, babble like a halfwit, pick my nose or enjoy blissful silence with nobody to notice. My own space.
Once I had established with the DVLA that it had been my doctor’s mistake, I took a day off work and made an urgent appointment with him, taking with me a carefully worded letter as if from him to the DVLA explaining the mistake. Although he hadn’t kept a copy of the form, fortunately he immediately acknowledged the error and accepted the letter as being what he would have said. Once on the surgery’s headed notepaper he faxed it through, and I posted the original as confirmation. The following day I wrote a letter to them explaining the error - all this in the 48 hours after my receipt of their letter. Both letters stressed how important my car was to my employment. And after all, the problem had not been of my making.
I considered that I had acted promptly; while cursing that I would have to make other transport arrangements for a week at most, as John was willing to drive me to work it would just be a brief blip and not 12 months. I sat back and waited to hear from them, keeping my fingers crossed that I would not have to bus it to work, which would have represented a 2-hour commute in each direction, door to desk.
That was a month ago.
I became increasingly distressed as phone call after phone call was made to the DVLA. When you make the call, you go through multiple menus before being able to speak to a human being, and a wrong choice places you in a loop and you have to hang up and start again. The human I eventually spoke to was always different to the time before, and though they expertly called up my information on their screens after half a dozen security questions fired at me to make sure I was who I said I was, the answers were always vague. (“It’s in the system”.)
I eventually heard that they had accepted what my doctor had said, and they would ‘allow’ me to re-apply for a driving licence from scratch. I wouldn’t even have to pay the fee! Subsequent chasers (going through the same rigmarole) prompted questions from them such as had I faxed the form? What about my former expired licence? (Couldn’t fax that… )
John drove my car once during that time just to check the engine was still ticking over, and parked it carelessly on the drive with two wheels on the grass. And there it remained for the rest of the time, the smothered grass waiting for release and the milkman pleased that it gave him a clearer path the other side to make his deliveries...
At one point a friend suggested to me that if this had happened to me while I was still living in Argentina, the bureaucracy would have been a hundred times worse, and the whole situation more stressful. Well, no, I replied. I would have bribed somebody at the outset and it would have been job sorted. Alternatively there are frequent bus services everywhere, unlike in the UK, where most people like me live isolated from bus routes.
The new licence finally arrived today, after a month’s worth of fuel for John driving to the hospital twice a day and doing all my errands for me. I learned from looking up driving forums on the internet that the question on that form which caused all the trouble is frequently ticked incorrectly, and the DVLA have showed no signs of changing the wording. Some people have even had to resort to getting letters of complaint written by their Member of Parliament or pay for medical examinations by more senior clinicians.
It makes me wonder whether it was worth being honest to them about my eye condition. I was blabbing on to myself about the whole sorry affair in the car as I drove home from work today, with classical music going full blast and in between picking my nose.
- from Lonicera’s digital archive
The Maldives - Kuramathi