Driving After A Spinal Cord Injury

If you have suffered paralysis as the result of a spinal cord injury (SCI), you may be struggling with feeling trapped and helpless. Having such a sudden loss of function and independence can be terrifying, and it can take a long time to adjust to the new reality. Some find that they want to push themselves to their new limits, whereas others feel defeated. They may see something like driving as a part of their old life that they must give up. Just because you are paraplegic or quadriplegic, doesn’t necessarily mean you need to surrender driving. Thousands of people with SCIs have been able to relearn how to drive with the help of adaptive equipment and take back some of their freedom.

How Can a Spinal Cord Injury Affect My Driving Abilities?

An injury in the lumbar spine can result in little to no function in the legs but will leave the arms and core muscles fully functioning. This means that a driver can still operate a steering wheel, horn, turn signal, and most of the other buttons and knobs in their car. However, they will no longer be able to operate foot pedals and will have difficulty getting in and out of a vehicle.

Injuries in the thoracic spine, along with causing loss of leg function, can also lead to balance problems and sometimes decreased function in the hands. A driver may need additional straps across their chest to hold them up in a safe position while driving, especially while going around turns. They may also need adaptive devices such as joysticks or video game style controllers to operate a vehicle.

It may be difficult to transfer yourself and your chair in and out of the vehicle easily, so you may need to remain in your wheelchair while you drive. This means you will need a vehicle with more space to accommodate a ramp and an automatic wheelchair lockdown system

Meet Jillian Harpin

Jill Harpin is a 26 year old woman from Wolcott. While on vacation in Mexico, she suffered a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Watch this video to hear her inspirational outlook on life after an SCI. 

How do I know if I can drive again after a spinal cord injury?

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One of the big factors in determining if you can drive with a spinal cord injury is whether you have any use of your arms. If your SCI is located below C4, you will possibly still have the arm motion needed to operate a vehicle with some sort of adaptive devices. If the SCI is at C4 or higher, your chances of driving are much smaller, but in some cases with incomplete SCIs, there is enough minimal hand movement to be able to operate a joystick or game controller style device.

If your break is below C4 or is incomplete and still allows you some arm function, you need to consider whether your body has had time to recover from the SCI. It is possible that with more time and rehab, you could improve your functionality a bit more. It is important that you have some degree of muscle control, especially in your arms and hands. You may also suffer from muscle spasms after an SCI. If these are severe enough that they could affect your ability to operate vehicle controls, this may need to be addressed before driving can be a safe option.

You may also have other issues related to your spinal cord injury that need to be addressed. If you received your injury in a car accident, there may be secondary injuries that still need time to heal. You may also be on medications, such as narcotic pain killers, that can alter your judgment and reaction time and render you temporarily unsafe to drive. Or you may have developed pressure sores during recovery that would prevent you from sitting properly in a vehicle. These may need to be dealt with before you can get behind the wheel.

There are no state or federal laws prohibiting people with SCIs from driving, but you may need to be placed under restrictions. Our CDRS can help determine what you are capable of doing and which DMV regulations may apply in your situation. 

What can I do to prepare for driving after a spinal cord injury?

  1. Discuss the goals you have for driving with your physical and occupational therapists, and they will be able to help you determine what you can do to prepare physically.
  2. Read blogs and watch YouTube videos from other SCI patients. Their stories may give you the hope and confidence you need to drive again. We have a variety of stories on our own social media channels. 
  3. You can start researching what sort of vehicle you may need to accommodate your needs, but we wouldn’t recommend making any purchases until after you have spoken with our Certified Driver Rehab Specialist (CDRS). 

What The Next Street Looks For When Assessing

At The Next Street, we come to you. In many cases, we meet with you in the comfort of your own home and carry out an assessment of your abilities. All you need to do to prepare is to get a good night’s sleep and eat normal meals so you have the strength and energy to get through the visit, which can take up to two hours. Don’t worry about needing to memorize anything, this isn’t a test of your knowledge, it is an assessment of your motor skills and your cognitive and visual abilities. 

During your appointment with our CDRS, we check your range of motion, flexibility, strength, and coordination to see if you can handle operating a vehicle. We test your vision, reflexes and judgment skills. We also take the time to evaluate you for adaptive devices to see which equipment would work best for you.

Depending on how this first appointment goes, we may schedule you for a behind-the-wheel evaluation at a later date. We will use our adaptive evaluation vehicle and determine the right set up for your future behind the wheel. The driving evaluation is also a 2-hour appointment and will cover everything needed for you to safely operate your own motor vehicle. 


Want to read and learn more?

Check out the Driver Rehab blog to learn more about driving while aging.

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