Disabled driver getting in car

Driving Following a Spinal Cord Injury: Is it Possible?

Spinal cord injuries (SCI) can have a huge impact on any individual who sustains one. A serious SCI generally results in loss of mobility in one or several parts of the body, depending on where the damage has occurred.

This means that an individual with a spinal cord injury will likely need to make adjustments to their daily living, to take into account the reduction in mobility that they are experiencing. Despite the typical nature of this type of injury and the disability it can leave someone with, having an SCI doesn’t have to mean that the individual can’t leave a full life and do many of the things they used to do.

This includes driving a car. With effective vehicle modifications and the appropriate training, quite often an individual with a spinal cord injury can get back on the road and enjoy their freedom in a relatively short space of time.

Here we take a look at the benefits of driving after a spinal cord injury, what help is available and the challenges that need to be considered.

Driving After a Spinal Cord Injury: The Benefits

One of the worries many people encounter following a spinal cord injury is being reliant on other people and not being able to live an independent life. The ability to drive is something that most of us take for granted. It offers a sense of immediate freedom by being able to travel short or long distances at will.

Being able to continue to drive after a spinal cord injury can have a huge impact on health and wellbeing in the short and long term. The same applies to those who never drove before their injury but decide to get behind the wheel for the first time as a disabled driver.

What Factors Decide Whether an Individual Can Drive After an SCI?

Wheelchair user about to get into a car

There are a range of different factors that need to be taken into account when considering to driving after a spinal cord injury. A lot will depend on the level of the injury and individual’s ability to make certain key movements to safely control a vehicle. Ensuring that the relevant authorities are informed and adequate car modifications are undertaken is essential.

Every motorist has a duty to other road users and pedestrians and safety is the first priority when reaching a decision on whether someone can drive or not.

Following typical car modifications, a disabled driver will driver a car which doesn’t need to be operated at all by foot pedals. They do, however, need to be able to steer and operate additional controls with their hands.

Balance, the range of motions a person can perform and the ability to act quickly enough are all important. Fine motor skills are still necessary which is why any individual who has an SCI will usually need to undertake a clinical evaluation before they are considered safe to drive.

Driving Evaluations Following a Spinal Cord Injury

Most countries have a driving evaluation in place for individuals with a spinal cord injury. While these may vary from place to place, their main function is to ensure safety.

In the USA, a full assessment will involve:

  • Reviewing the medical history, medication and what the individual wants to achieve with their driving.
  • Checking that the individual’s vision is suitable for driving.
  • Testing cognitive and decision-making ability as well as fine motor movement.
  • Looking at the challenges in transferring to a vehicle and loading a wheelchair.
  • Testing assistive options to make driving possible.

The doctor will refer the individual to a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS) who will help match the right equipment to the driver’s needs. They are also able to advise on learning to drive following a spinal cord injury.

Vehicle Modifications For Disabled Drivers

Wheelchair user driving car

Vehicle hand controls for disabled drivers and other assistive technology have come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades. It’s not always just about the controls for driving, however.

An individual may have to include a mechanism for getting in and out of a vehicle and loading their wheelchair. Some models let you simply maneuver your wheelchair into the vehicle and begin driving.

The most common controls for handling the accelerator peddle and footbrake are connected to the steering wheel. These come in different varieties depending on the range of motion available and it’s important to find the one that suits the individual.

The driver may have to operate the accelerator with one hand and the steering wheel with another which means the steering also needs to be modified. That can include having to use less force to turn right or left.

Of course, it takes money to modify a vehicle and the cost can depend on the type of changes an individual with a spinal cord injury requires. In many countries, there are schemes available to help, including the USA where state vocational rehabilitation programs have been set up.

Car companies also offer discounts if a car needs to modified, in some cases up to $1,000. Organizations like HelpHOPELive can assist with fundraising activities if needed.

Getting On The Road

Just because a person has a spinal cord injury doesn’t mean they can’t drive – far from it. However, not everyone will be able to and an evaluation will reveal whether driving is a possibility and what assistive technology will be required. The good news is there have been great improvements in this area in recent years, helping to give those with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities more independence and freedom to live their lives to the full.