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Driving & Spinal Cord Injury

For years, the Driver Rehabilitation Program at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital has been putting people with spinal cord injuries (SCI) back in the driver’s seat. For many patients with spinal cord injury, the Driver Rehab Program is one of the last services they use at Mary Free Bed, but returning to driving is often the most significant activity that restores freedom and independence.

The Driver Rehabilitation program evaluates patients' skills and provides driver education and rehabilitation after a spinal cord injury. The Driver Rehabilitation staff helps people who are buying a modified car or truck with adaptive equipment by providing recommendations and training, as needed. Once the modifications to the vehicle are complete and the individual has successfully finished training, it’s time to hit the road independently.

Learn more about:

►Driver rehabilitation & spinal cord injury history
►New and Improved vehicle modifications for spinal cord injury patients
►Trying vehicle modifications before you buy
►Hand Controls
►Contact the Driver Rehabilitation Program

Driver Rehabilitation & Spinal Cord Injury History

Modifications that allow people with spinal cord injuries to drive have been available for years, but recent changes and improvements in adaptive equipment now allow those with spinal cord injury to use a variety of base vehicles for transportation and driving. It used to be that individuals were limited to driving only sedans, minivans, or full-size vans. Now, in addition to those vehicles, truck and SUV modifications are available. Also available are safety improvements for those who drive with hand controls.

In the past, a patient who used a truck for a base vehicle was required to pull him or herself up and into the truck from the wheelchair seat. Transferring this way requires climbing up 10 to 13 inches to get into the truck’s seat. Additionally, people loaded and unloaded wheelchairs manually. After years of doing this, the demands of the transfer and wheelchair loading typically resulted in problems with upper extremities and shoulders. [Back to top]

New and Improved Vehicle Modifications for Spinal Cord Injury Patients

New and Improved Vehicle Modifications for Spinal Cord Injury Patients

Now, truck modifications provide a transfer seat for a driver to transfer onto at wheelchair-seat level. Two seat styles are currently available. One style provides a platform to transfer onto; once on the platform, the platform rises to the level of the truck’s seat and the driver slides into the factory truck seat from the power seat platform. Once seated in the driver’s seat, the driver removes the seat platform and closes the door. The second style of seat modification actually brings the driver’s seat out of the driver’s door and down to a height that someone in a wheelchair can transfer onto; the seat then powers up to floor level and swings back into the driver’s position. Both seat modifications eliminate the need for the driver to pull him or herself up from the wheelchair, into the cab, and onto the driver’s seat, which greatly decreases the amount of effort that is required to get into a truck seat.

Coupling the seat modifications with a power wheelchair loading device allows drivers to easily manage wheelchair loading and unloading. A loader that is mounted in the bed of the truck can pick up a rigid frame wheelchair and store it. Truck bed cap modifications are available so the wheelchair is covered during transport. Folding wheelchairs can be managed using the same equipment, or, if a person wants to keep the bed of the truck open, a loading device can be mounted inside the cab. [Back to top]

Try Vehicle Modifications Before You Buy

Driver Rehab staff always recommend that someone try out modifications before they are made to a personal vehicle, especially since there are specific truck requirements for modifications. Both styles of seat modifications require an extended cab. Interior truck cab wheelchair loaders with a folding wheelchair require an extended cab with a third door. To ensure that the driver, the wheelchair, the modifications, and the desired truck are compatible, it’s imperative that he or she try out all the adaptive equipment and work with a qualified vendor before buying a truck. [Back to top]

Ready, Set, Hand Control

Hand controls are an extension of the factory pedals that operate the vehicle’s accelerator and brake. When using hand controls, the factory brake pedal moves when applying the brakes. Most drivers who use hand controls are aware of the danger of having their lower extremity positioned below the brake or gas pedal as their lower extremities may prevent the brakes or gas from being applied. However, there have been some accidents as a result of the driver's foot interfering with applying the brakes. To prevent this from happening, a pedal guard was designed, which is removable and allows able-bodied drivers to use the factory pedals. Driver Rehabilatation staff recommend a pedal guard for all drivers who use hand controls. While the pedal guard increases the overall cost for modifying a vehicle, it also increases the overall safety for all drivers on the road.

Another item drivers often use with van, truck, and SUV hand-controls is a chest strap with Velcro closure. In a sedan, a driver’s lower extremities tend to be positioned out in front of him or her, which helps with stability. Minivans, trucks, and SUV seats allow for more upright sitting thereby decreasing a driver’s stability in the seat. The chest strap helps keep the driver upright when taking faster turns or executing evasive maneuvers and helps the driver better manage the hand controls and steering device.

To have hand controls installed in a vehicle, an individual must:

Participate in a driving evaluation - This is an opportunity to try the adaptive equipment on the road and determine if it meets the person’s needs.  

Complete driver's training - Training is provided to ensure safety with the adaptive equipment. Training sessions also allow someone to try other styles of hand controls to determine what works best. Training is recommended to prepare for and pass a road test with the State of Michigan (Driver Assessment).  

Complete a road test with Driver Assessment - The adaptive equipment is noted on the driving record, allowing the driver to have the equipment installed on his or her own vehicle, or allowing for rental of a car equipped with adaptive equipment.  

Follow up with Driver Rehab once modifications are made to the client’s vehicle - A Driver Rehab staff member meets with each person when his or her vehicle is ready for delivery. The staff member will ride with the driver to ensure that the equipment is adjusted to the client and that it meets his or her needs.

To access Mary Free Bed’s Driver Rehabilitation services, an individual must first have his or her condition evaluated by a physician who writes a prescription requesting a driving or transportation assessment. Driver Rehabilitation advises a client and his or her physician about an individual’s overall driver safety and readiness to drive – the Driver Rehab Program does not have the ability to grant or remove an individual’s license. [Back to top]

Contact the Driver Rehabilitation Program

616.242.0343 or 800.528.8989

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