Braille Monitor                                             May 2016

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Blinded Driver versus Blind Pedestrians

by Mike May

Mike MayFrom the Editor: One of the most significant freedoms blind people have gained since the development of techniques to use the long white cane and legislation allowing the use of guide dogs in public places is the ability to travel where we want, when we want, with some assurance of safety. Good training is always essential, but environmental issues are also important, and so too is a recognition on the part of the driving public that they command machines that weigh much more than the pedestrians who share the streets.

Mike May and his wife Gena are no strangers to travel. Mike is the founder and chief executive officer of Sendero Group, a company that develops and markets global positioning systems used by the blind. He also works with the National Federation of the Blind on our project to coordinate indoor navigational activities. Here is what he has to say about a recent accident involving him and his wife:

On February 23, at 7:45 a.m., my wife Gena Harper and I, both blind, were clipped by a vehicle while we were walking in the crosswalk north on E Street. The Toyota Highlander was heading south on E Street. It stopped at the stop sign and then made a left turn heading east on Fourth Street. The driver turned behind us, running over my back heel and knocking Gena’s Seeing Eye dog, Yulie, forward. My dog, Tank, was guiding well in front and suffered no physical injury, nor did Gen. I doubt it would have made a difference even if we could see unless we might have been able to dive out of the way at the last second.

The driver pulled over as did a passer-by who saw the incident. The driver explained that the sun was in her eyes, and she never saw us as evidenced by the fact she did not put on her brakes. Gena and I were halfway across the intersection when we were struck. The first part of that intersection was shaded by a building. We were in that shaded area when she started her turn and then hit us.

It would take about three seconds from the driver’s stopped position to complete the ninety-degree turn. It is astounding that in that three seconds she never saw two people and two dogs in clear view. The obvious question arises, if you are totally blinded by the sun, why would you take the gamble to hurdle a 5,600 pound vehicle at ten to fifteen miles per hour through the intersection?

I suffered a bruised and scraped heel. Yulie was not physically hurt but was quite scared. Everyone was shaken including the driver. Hopefully she learned a frightening lesson not to drive when blinded by the sun.

Another lesson came out of this incident; don’t expect 911 to know your exact location when you call from a cell phone. 911 calls from a cell phone may be routed to one of three entities when you are calling from Davis, and they cannot identify your address the way they would if you called from a landline. Thinking the operator would know I was in Davis, I said I was at Fourth and E. The CHP [California Highway Patrol] operator who got the call transferred me to the Sacramento Police Department. I gave my location again and included Davis in the address at which point I was transferred to the Davis PD and gave my address and story for a third time. It took four minutes before this round-about emergency call was finished. Good thing the situation wasn’t life threatening.

The 911 system was set up in the ’70s based on landline communication with one carrier. Seventy percent of 911 calls today are from cell phones from multiple carriers. 911 operators do not get your GPS position, nor can they receive texts. The FCC reports that 10,000 people lose their lives each year related to poor 911 cell phone positioning.

In retrospect I should have used the BlueLight emergency app instead of calling 911 directly on my phone. This would have alerted my emergency contacts by text of my location while also calling 911. 

In some communities like Oakland your BlueLight call is routed to local emergency services based on your exact position. Perhaps enhanced BlueLight service will come to Davis sooner than later as a lifesaving emergency app. For now I have programmed the Davis PD direct emergency number into my iPhone.

Gena and I and our guide dogs missed being seriously injured by inches. There are so many pedestrians and cyclists in Davis that this incident should serve as a reminder for everyone to exercise more cautious judgement when driving, especially when the sun is in your eyes. Remember too if you are driving a hybrid or electric vehicle that they are very quiet at slow speeds, like starting up at an intersection or in a parking lot. Blind and sighted people alike have been struck by these quiet cars. The driver who hit us was not driving a quiet car, but she was at a full stop when we stepped off the curb. Our Seeing Eye dogs were doing their jobs, and we clearly had the right of way. I don’t believe that being blinded by the sun or any other excuse justifies hitting pedestrians in a crosswalk.

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