On Wheels and Behind the Wheel: Tips for Adapted Driving

LASCI founder Bert Burns was paralyzed more than 30 years ago when a drunk driver ran a red light and struck the car he was driving.  It would be understandable if, after that life-changing experience, Bert decided not to drive anymore.

Bert Burns shares advice on life after spinal cord injury through LASCI programs nationwide.

Bert Burns shares advice on life after spinal cord injury through LASCI programs nationwide.

However, as a 20-year-old on wheels, Bert realized then – and now – that in order to stay active and engaged in life, he had to get back on the road.

If you are new to using a wheelchair, and are not yet driving again, please take a moment to review Bert’s advice below.  The world is waiting for you – don’t be afraid to get back behind the steering wheel!

Q:  Bert, what if I am a higher-level quadriplegic – can I drive again?

A: If you have arm function, you can drive, even if you don’t have as much hand dexterity as you used to have.  The level of adaptation your car will need depends on your level of function, but where there’s a will, there’s a way!

For example, if you have a C6 injury level or below, you can drive a car using a manual chair [that you take apart and load into the car when you get in].  If you are higher than a C6, you will probably be using a power chair and in that case you’ll need a van or a mini-van with a ramp that allows you to enter the vehicle with your power chair.

Depending on your level of hand function and your injury level, you may need a lift, or assisted mechanical braking and steering with customized devices like a tripod or a knob on the steering wheel to help with your adapted driving.

We've even seen friends hit the road on their customized motorcycles, like Al Ruscalli pictured above.

We’ve even seen friends hit the road on their customized motorcycles, like Al Ruscalli pictured above.

Q: What are the best hand controls to use when adapting my car?

A: There are a variety of hand controls on the market including push-button controls, knobs and accelerator rings.  There are four main hand control types , according to your physical abilities:

  • Push/right angle style
  • Push/pull style
  • Push/rock style
  • Push/rotate style

You’re going to want to talk to a hand control specialist about the steering style that is best for your personal needs.  I recommend two individuals in particular, Scott Coots and Mo Abusham. Both are wheelchair users themselves.

Scott installed the hand controls on my own vehicle and he works at Handicapped Driver Services in Marietta, GA.  Scott is a high-level quadriplegic. You can reach him at 770-422-9674.

Mo Abusham owns Better Life Mobility that has locations in California and Las Vegas.  Visit their website at: http://www.betterlifemobility.com/.

Bert recommends getting a two-door car instead of one with four doors, because of the extra space the driver's side door will have to navigate your wheelchair closer to the vehicle.

Bert recommends getting a two-door car instead of one with four doors, because of the extra space the driver’s side door will have to navigate your wheelchair closer to the vehicle.

Q: What should I look for when selecting a car for my personal use?

A: If you use a manual chair and can transfer into a vehicle, I would recommend getting a two-door car instead of a four-door.  Two-door cars are easier to enter because the driver side door opens much wider than that of a four-door vehicle.  That makes the entry area bigger to let you pull up your chair next to the driver’s seat.

A transfer board will help you move onto the driver's seat more easily, and will reduce the stress on your shoulders from lifting your body.

A transfer board will help you move onto the driver’s seat more easily, and will reduce the stress on your shoulders from lifting your body.

Also, if you can transfer yourself, you don’t need a special adapted vehicle in terms of having a lift or other assistance for entering the vehicle. You can just buy a regular car and have hand controls installed.

From there, the only other support you may need to drive is a transfer board to help you get in and out of the vehicle. The transfer board puts less strain on your shoulders.

When choosing a car though, your transmission matters.  Get an automatic, as you obviously won’t be using a clutch to shift gears. It is possible to have a mechanical adaptive clutch installed, but why add that expense if you don’t need to?

Q: What should I do if I am travelling and need to rent a car?

A: If you’re a low quad or a paraplegic, any major rental company in large towns will have hand controls available for use with their rental vehicles.  You will want to give them at least a 24-hour notice for reserving the hand controls so they will have time to install them on the vehicle that you are renting.

Also, tell them if you are left or right-handed, and if you need a knob or another steering device in addition to the hand controls.

If you use a transfer board to get in and out of a car, you will want to bring that with you because rental car agencies do not have them on hand. You can also buy portable hand controls that you can pack in your luggage and put on any car you use when you travel.

Keep in mind though, that if you are a higher-level quadriplegic or if you drive a customized van with a lift, you won’t be able to rent a similar van that you can drive.  You may be able to rent an accessible van that has a lift, so you can easily enter and ride in the van with your power chair, but you won’t be able to drive it.

Don't be afraid to get back behind the wheel! Bert often drives his family to weekend getaways and summer destinations.

Don’t be afraid to get back behind the wheel! Bert often drives his family to weekend getaways and summer destinations.

Q: Bert, I can’t afford a brand new car or van that has been adapted. Where can I look for a used adapted vehicle?

A: Contact your local rehab hospital or physical therapy centers and their related peer support groups. These organizations often post flyers on bulletin boards or create places to share information about buying used adaptive vehicles. People will often advertise their used vehicles for sale through these places.

 

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6 Responses to On Wheels and Behind the Wheel: Tips for Adapted Driving

  1. Karen Gifford says:

    My husband just bought a postal jeep, that has right sided driving. That way if he parks on the street ( as opposed to a parking lot ), he won’t have to assemble his chair in traffic. He said that getting hit by a car once was enough.

  2. Michael Miller says:

    I got back behind the wheel after 2 years paralyzed at T-3. I have a 4-door vehicle (lucky to find a Pontiac G6 which has a front door with a longer path of travel when it opens)…..I have Menox Hand controls which are awesome because they are “low-profile” which don’t stand out. If I don’t tell you what they are, most people don’t even notice them. I have now been driving 3 years. It’s such an awesome freeing experience to be able to go without having to plan around someone else’s schedule.

  3. Christine Atwood says:

    I was in a car accident last July that left me paralyzed. Any help with anything would be greatly appreciated . Thank you sincerely, Christine Atwood

  4. Cynthia says:

    After 7 years I finally got a driving evaluation done and had my first experience driving with hand controls. It was more difficult than I thought, but I am sure with practice I will get the hang of it. One thing I want to note, is that I am technically a C6 quad, but I am not able to transfer myself in and out of a standard car safely. I think it is important to understand that even though some people who are low-quads can transfer themselves, not all can. Everyone’s injury and level of recovery is unique to them.

  5. patrick walker says:

    Anybody can get hand controls installed in any car. Buying new cars the three major var companies give discounts for adaptive controls at the dealership. Most states require you to take a road test to see your drving skills and will put restrictions on your license for hand controls and auto transmissions. Shepherd center in atlanta has driving as part of there rehab services. Alittle pratice and you will have freedom again. Cell phones are a plus incase of breakdowns or crashes. Insurance companies have to be told about the hand controls and car modifacations to add money to be replaced. Even car rental places have hand controls they put in cars for the disabled. Just meed advanced warning so they can have a car ready to go when you get there. Ive been driving since two weeks after my injury i live alone so with driving myself three hours one way for drs appointments is a must. You can even get riding lawn mowers tractors motorcycles four wheelers adapted for disabled use. Bab part is it can get costly to adapt things on a limeted imcome. Some states also offer grants to help with modifcations .

  6. robert mccoy says:

    I have been driving as a paraplegic L 1 and L 2 since 1957. I am now 77 years old and still driving first 40 years in car and last 20 years a van .In my 60 years
    I have never entered a vehicle from the drivers side as it is almost impossible.
    You need a bench front seat first open passenger side door transfer to the seat of car then fold wheelchair and set the foot rest on the door jam then slide over under wheel put seat back forward the lean over grab footrest and pull chair into back seat area. this way you don’t get run over IF you have a four door pull chair INTO THE PASSENGER AREA IN FRONT?
    YOU ARE LESS LIKLE TO GET RAN OVER THIS WAY.
    THANK YOU

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