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On the Road: Adaptive Driving for Persons with Disabilities
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On the Road: Adaptive Driving for Persons with Disabilities

Who can ever forget their first time behind the wheel of a car? Or the sense of freedom you felt when you got your first official driver’s license? If Detroit is the Motor City, then the U.S. might well be the “Motor Nation.” From the freewheeling allure of Route 66 to the seductive beauty of the Pacific Coast Highway, Americans have long had a love affair with the road.

For the nearly 50 million people in the United States who are living with a disability, however, such asphalt freedom is all too short-lived, if it comes at all. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Persons with disabilities now have more options than ever before when it comes to adaptive driving. 

What Is Adaptive Driving? Simply put, adaptive driving refers to either the modification of a standard vehicle to meet the needs of a person with some form of disability or to the purchase of a vehicle custom-designed to accommodate drivers with special needs. Indeed, today’s adaptive driving technologies mean that the accommodations now available to drivers with disabilities are about as diverse as the people who use them.

These adaptations can be as simple as removable steering wheel knobs for drivers who have challenges with their fine motor skills, or they can be as complex as vehicle-lowering systems for drivers who use wheelchairs or who cannot step into higher profile vehicles. Some adaptive features even come standard in most vehicles, such as power steering to aid drivers with limited upper body strength or automatic lane centering and adaptive cruise control to reduce the physical fatigue of driving while ensuring safety.

Autonomous Vehicles Perhaps one of the most exciting innovations in adaptive driving in recent years has been the advent of the autonomous vehicle. Though the technology still remains very much in its developmental phase, preliminary results have been very promising and new innovations are emerging daily to optimize functionality and safety. A recent study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTA) found that 94% of all traffic accidents can be attributed to human error. Automated vehicles eliminate the risks associated with distracted driving, driver fatigue, driver impairment, and other factors linked to human error.

For persons with disabilities, though, the benefits extend far beyond the virtual elimination of human causes in vehicular accidents. Autonomous vehicles promise to enable drivers with disabilities to enjoy the freedom of the open road with virtually no limitations. These vehicles, in fact, are predicted to soon be capable of operating via a sort of “autopilot system,” driving safely from location to location with little or no intercession by the driver. Thus, whether you have a mobility, visual, or hearing impairment, there is likely an automated technology out there perfectly suited to get you out on the road safely and independently.

Adaptations for Caregivers Persons with disabilities are not the only ones who can benefit from adaptive driving technologies. It is estimated that nearly 40 million people in the United States are caregivers, with the vast majority caring for adults with disabilities, illnesses, or injuries. Caregiving inevitably means being able to provide or procure safe and reliable transportation for those under one’s care.

Adaptations for vehicles, including the installation of ramps, wheelchair lifts, and power doors and lift gates, can significantly reduce the physical strain of transporting persons with disabilities, as well as the necessary equipment they may require. This also increases safety for both the caregiver and his/her charge, particularly when it comes to exiting and entering the vehicle.

The Logistics When you decide to explore adaptive driving options for yourself or someone you care for, it’s a great idea to research the wide range of programs such as military insurance available to assist you in purchasing a customized vehicle or modifying your own. Many automotive manufacturers offer handsome rebates on adaptive equipment and technologies. In addition, many nonprofits and government agencies offer help with locating and funding these technologies.

Once the vehicle has been adapted, however, there may still be a process involved in getting the driver on the road safely and legally. Regulations on adaptive driving vary from state to state, so it’s important to research the laws in your area.

No matter where you live, however, if you have a disability and are looking to get on the road, you should expect to be required to take a driving test. Once you demonstrate that your vehicle’s adaptations provide you with an on-the-road proficiency equivalent to that expected in a standard driving test, you cannot legally be denied a driver’s license.

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