Spinal cord injury (SCI) patients and other people living with mobility limitations may not
be aware of the many kinds of adaptive driving devices and equipment available
to them. Nerve damage can create a loss of muscular control or sensation
of pressure at or below the injury site. Muscular rigidity can also impact
function in the arms or legs.
A patient who has suffered a recent spinal cord injury or nerve damage
may suddenly discover an inability to operate basic automobile controls.
In comparison, elderly people who struggle with arthritis, joint problems,
or muscular degeneration may also experience the inability to judge or
apply pressure to the steering wheel or foot pedals. Fortunately, many
different types of adaptive equipment are available to make driving safe
and easy for people with certain physical limitations.
Innovative Adaptive Equipment for Driver Independence
Adaptive devices can literally make a life or death difference in the driver’s
ability to maneuver safely. There are some devices that can be fitted
to a regular passenger vehicle without considerable effort or modifications
to the existing equipment. Others require professional installation, but
do not compromise the vehicle’s integrity in any way.
Hand Controls (Accelerator/Brake): Many variants of a hand operated throttle/brake lever are available for
those with impaired leg function. Most devices are installed underneath
the steering column or along the center console. Components are routed
away from the driver and do not touch the legs or reduce available seating
space. Hand levers are seated close to the steering wheel and allow the
driver to push forward for braking or pull back for acceleration.
Newer models consist of a pressure ring mounted just inside or behind the
steering wheel. Squeezing the right side accelerates the left brakes.
These types of hand controls allow a driver to keep both hands on the
wheel while braking or accelerating. Additionally, nearly all interior
vehicle controls (radio, climate, headlights) can be re-routed and operated
through a steering wheel mounted keypad, eliminating the need for a driver
to reach across his/her body while operating the vehicle.
Steering Wheel Grips: A special grip or knob can be secured to the steering wheel for easy
one-handed operation. Peg and prong variants exist to accompany palm-steering
or the use of prosthetics; there’s even an eyelet variant that will
accommodate a prosthetic hook. These simple grips and knobs work well
alone or in conjunction with accelerator/brake hand controls.
Reduced/Zero Effort Steering: Reduced/Zero effort devices typically modify a vehicle’s existing
power steering assembly, making the “assist” more powerful
and reducing turning the steering wheel to a fingertip effort. These systems
are usually installed in conjunction with a steering knob or grip for
safety. This system benefits anyone with limited arm strength or range
Foot Steering: For those who do not have the use of their arms, a foot steering device
can be installed next to the OEM pedals. The driver’s shoe is fitted
with an external pin and matches up with a small rotary wheel and is turned
using the foot in the same motion as a traditional steering wheel. The
driver uses the other foot to operate the brake and gas normally.
Any of the devices described here can be fitted on the majority of existing
passenger vehicles. For drivers who require wheelchairs (manual or motorized),
a modified minivans or full size van might be necessary. These vans are
typically equipped with comprehensive package options including the “bolt-on”
equipment already discussed, but may also include chair lifts, turning
driver seats, lowered floors, or special anchors/restraints that allow
the driver to operate the vehicle directly from a wheelchair.