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 of movement.
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.