Buying a Car as a Measure of Social Inclusion

On average, drivers in Britain will own more than three cars in their driving lifetime. I expect most will actually own many more cars than that. It is quite easy to buy another car. You can use your current vehicle as a deposit if you do not have the ready funds, sign a Personal Contract Purchase (PCP) agreement, and pay a monthly cost to the dealership for the next three or so years when you get to either buy the car outright or use it as a deposit on another, newer model. The popularity of the PCP method of car ownership has helped car sales in Britain achieve significant increases over other European countries. It is good for the car manufacturers, the dealerships, and drivers; well, not all of them.

Drivers who have a disability that is significant enough for them to require a physical adaptation being made to their car so as to allow them to operate it are not readily included in this purchasing bonanza. Before I go any further, let me pre-empt any responses that involves pointing out the Motobility scheme. Motobility do not sell cars, they lease them. People in receipt of the higher level of mobility allowance qualify for a leasing deal with Motobility, but they never own the car. Like any other leasing contract, the car belongs to the lender and the driver is liable to pay for any damage done to the car, even by stone chippings or someone pranging the door with a shopping trolly in a car park, which recently happened to me. Also, if the driver is called in to have their disability allowance reassessed and loses it, even if they have an automatic review pending, they also lose their car.

I work out of town and need my car to get me to my employer’s site. I cannot afford to lose my car in an arbitrary fashion such as might happen if I leased it, that is why I want to buy a replacement vehicle. Now, here’s the rub! When I bought my car, I was unable to take it for a test drive as it was a normal car, that is, it was not adapted for a disabled person like myself. Some dealers will invite prospective customers who have a disability to sit as a passenger in the front seat while a salesperson drives them around the block. Okay, that might give me an insight as a passenger but clearly, it is not the same as driving the vehicle yourself. It also seems a bit patronising as well. What I had to do was a lot of research on what type of car I was looking for by reading reviews in journals, magazines, and the internet. I narrowed down the field to three models. When I went to a dealership, I was offered just one of the three. I needed a car, so I accepted the one I was offered, without a test drive of course. I got lucky; the car has proven to be a great choice.

After all of the administration was completed the car was delivered to my home at no added expense. Obviously, I could not go and pick it up from the dealership myself. A couple of days later, it was picked up by a company that specialises in adapting cars to the needs of disabled drivers. I had already been to see them to agree what adaptations I were required. A few more days later and the car was returned to me, all the adaptations completed, and a bill for £1,800, which was in addition to what I had already paid for the car at the dealership. It is an automatic by the way, which are more expensive to buy and generally thirstier to run, but I am, like many disabled drivers, limited to driving only cars with automatic gearboxes. There are some people who believe that the cost of adaptation is paid for me, but it is not true. I have to find the money myself. As the average deposit on a new car is £2000 then that means when it comes to buying a replacement, I have to have about £4000 at hand before I can even go shopping. By the way, I earn approximately two-thirds of the average salary in the UK in 2020, so to me, £4000 is a significant amount of money.

I never got to go down to the dealership, pick up the keys, and drive my new car out of there, and I never will.

This blog entry was prompted by me considering replacing my car. It is a natural stage in the relationship between many drivers and their vehicles. Partly, it is for practical reasons. I have a grandson who is growing. At the moment, he fits into my current car quite well, but kids excel at getting bigger and I can see, especially with the need to carry them in specially designed car seats, that he going to need more room so as to be both comfortable and safe. I have no regrets about the car itself, it has been very good to me. I expect to be very sorry to see it go, but I have to be practical and think ahead. The car is getting older and age often means higher running costs. I do not have a lot of money to play around with, so I have to be pragmatic. Buying a newer car with better engineering and technology makes sense, especially as many of those improvements actually make cars easier to drive; but here’s the second rub, replacing an adapted car with another adapted car is not straightforward!

Let me illustrate my point with the following simple scenarios:

One: Bob goes down to several dealerships, test drives a few cars he likes the look of, uses his old car as a deposit on the one he chooses. On the day the car is available he drives in with his old car, swaps keys, and drives out in his new car.

Two: I go down to several dealerships, do not get to test drive any cars, find one that I think I might like, offer my old car as a deposit, but there is a problem! My old car has adaptations for a disabled driver. They will only accept it if I have the adaptations removed, which will cost me approximately £2000, but will allow them to sell it to able-bodied drivers.

Three: I do the above but I pay the deposit and keep my old car until the new one is delivered with the adaptations fitted, then I either pay to have the adaptations removed from my old car, for another £2000, or I try to sell it as an adapted vehicle myself, which means paying for two cars for as long as it takes to sell the older model. By the way, my house is in a restrictive parking zone, so I would have to buy two permits as well two insurances and two road taxes.

Options two and three are just going to cost me more money than option one. It is a fact that working disabled people in Britain generally earn 15% less than their able-bodied colleagues but, as I hope you can see so far, they have to pay more. With this in mind, I decided to approach some of the well-established car manufacturers in Britain directly. Between them, they produce some 1.3 million cars every year. I wondered if a small percentage of that number might be adapted for customers who were disabled. I sent this request to 24 companies:

Are cars available to buy from you that have adaptations fitted at source for disabled drivers?

I tried to keep it simple, hence using only one sentence. I state ‘buy’ not ‘lease’ and ‘source’ as in the companies’ own production facilities where they can apply all kinds of modifications and adaptations to a customer’s order, from the colour of the paint to a turbo charger.

The initial results were, understandably, almost entirely automatic email responses along the line of ‘thank you for your enquiry, someone will get back to you very soon’. Disappointingly, not all of them did get back to me and most of those who did sent links to their ‘Motobility experts and/or teams’. Even when I replied pointing out that I wanted to buy a car and not lease it, very few responded. One company just replied with a more personal email that included exactly the same links to Motobility as the original had. Clearly, catering to the needs of customers who also happen to be disabled is not a high priority.

Three companies did prove to be more proactive, however. Two of them made the effort to find out exactly what I wanted after we got past the Motobility obstacle, but they both admitted that scenario three is going to be the most likely outcome. One of them did invite me to make contact with them nearer to when I am ready to replace my car so that they can try and accommodate my needs, which was very good of them. Only one company said that they could adapt a new car for a disabled driver before it was delivered to the customer. Unfortunately for me, they happen to be a producer of more upmarket cars that are a little beyond my means, but I genuinely appreciate the fact that they can do this small thing for their customers. I should perhaps mention that there was also one company who actually read my email and were honest enough to state that they could not adapt a car for me before it arrived in their showroom. They did not direct me to Motobility, they just said no, and I appreciate their candour.

The UK Government state that it is committed to creating a society that is inclusive, but those words have yet to be matched by any tangible actions. Buying a replacement car is as normal to most people as it should be, but it takes on a whole different aspect when undertaken by someone disabled like me. It is not easy, and it is more expensive than it should be. It really is not an inclusive activity. Sadly, it is also typical of many of the everyday things that people who are not disabled take for granted but people like me have to struggle with. It is a kind of apathetic prejudice; ‘yeah, we know you need some help, and yeah, we have a huge capacity for helping other people with the colour, technical specification, and what not for their cars, but we just don’t see any benefit in it for us!’ That sentiment applies to many other aspects of life in Britain today too.

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