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On the Road Again: Driving with Spinal Cord Injury

Driving with an SCI is most definitely possible but is a skill that needs to be relearned and mastered with new adaptive equipment before getting back out on the road safely.

by: KMT May, 2021 5 min read

Driving is a freedom we do not typically associate with people who have a spinal cord injury. However, with the proper precautions, training and vehicles with adaptive equipment, it’s definitely within reach for most SCI survivors.

There’s no question about it – driving can offer us a freedom unlike any other. Whether travelling to pursue everyday activities or hitting the open road, driving is a privilege full of possibilities and, quite often, adventure.

Driving with Spinal Cord Injury

Sufferers of a spinal cord injury – especially those who experience paralysis – may wonder if their days of driving are behind them. The purpose of this article is to inform you of things people living with a spinal cord injury should consider if entertaining the idea of getting back behind the wheel.

Driving will never be the same.

Whilst the rules of the road remain the same, the way in which you interact with your vehicle and, therefore, the road itself, will be drastically different from what you may be used to. Depending on your specific injury and needs, the vehicle you drive may include, but not be limited to, any of the following:

·       Hand controls for braking and accelerating;

·       Power assist devices for easy steering;

·       Touch ignition pads and gear shifts;

·       Adjustable drivers’ seats;

·       Joysticks or spinner knobs for those with limited hand function.

Whilst each of these controls needs to be learned and mastered before getting back on the road, they do demonstrate the wide range of adaptive controls and modifications that exist specifically for the benefit of people living with an SCI.

Driving with an SCI begins with evaluation.

The first step in the learning to drive again after sustaining an SCI is to get evaluated by a qualified driving instructor. Not only will they help you determine the proper driving setup and specific vehicle modifications and equipment necessary for your unique situation, but they’ll also assist in evaluating you on the below points, all of which are necessary for safe driving:

·       Vision screening and muscle strength;

·       Flexibility and range of motion;

·       Hand-eye coordination and reaction time;

·       Judgment and decision-making;

·       Ability to handle adaptive equipment;

·       Evaluation of any medications the driver takes or will take.

Of course, even after evaluation, you must adhere to national rules and regulations. Not all spinal cord injury sufferers will be eligible to drive again, purely because of the nature of their spinal cord injury and the lack of a distinctive cure. You will need a provisional or full driving licence in order to receive an on-the-road evaluation. You cannot be denied the opportunity to apply for a provisional licence because of your disability. However, you may receive a restricted licence based on the adaptive devices you require.

Selecting your vehicle

As a driver living with a spinal cord injury, an important thing to remember when choosing a vehicle is that it should be one that best suits your abilities and needs. For example, a minivan, which has more room and may be easier to get into and out of, may be more practical than a two-seater sports car.

Other things to consider are if you will be sitting in your wheelchair when driving or if you will transfer yourself to a seat. If the former, your vehicle should be equipped with wheelchair lockdown equipment for your safety. Power lockdown units are easier to use and offer greater independence than manual systems, which often require other people to help you get in or out.

There are plenty of other tips and questions you should be asking yourself as you search for the vehicle that best matches your spinal cord injury needs. Will you fit in a minivan? Can your vehicle accommodate hand controls or other required equipment? Once the vehicle has been modified, will there be enough room for passengers? If using a technician to modify an existing vehicle, do they have the requisite experience?

As you can see from the above, there is much to think about when choosing the right vehicle for your condition. That’s why it’s always wise to lean on the expertise available to you from driving evaluators, your rehabilitation centre or team and even others who share effects of spinal cord injury similar to those that you experience.


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