Disabled driver? Don’t sacrifice safety for independence

For many people, the worst thing about the idea of living with a disability is the perceived loss of independence, yet with advances in design and technology there are more disabled motorists on UK roads than ever. But are there additional risks for disabled drivers? What safety factors apply more to disabled drivers than their non-disabled counterparts?

Andrew Tipp, on behalf of Chartwell Insurance, offers some advice and tips on how to minimise the risk of accidents for disabled drivers.  

disabled driver car safety

“If you’ve developed a disability, tell the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and get yourself assessed by driving instructors. Whether it’s a stroke, epilepsy, or even a mental health disorder, any health problem that could affect your ability to drive is clearly dangerous” – Andrew Tipp.

The profile of disabled athletes in Britain at the moment has never been higher. This is obviously a good thing, but more importantly the Paralympics has started a national conversation over the visibility and contribution of disabled people to society.

Sport is clearly a powerful thing. It’s so powerful, in fact, it could be capable of redefining mainstream perceptions of what disabled individuals can do; whether that’s competing athletically, working autonomously or driving independently.

People with disabilities have, obviously, been able to do these things for many years, and the motor industry is well set up with assessments, learner courses and specialist car insurance for disabled drivers. But the success of the Paralympics will surely raise awareness among both recently disabled and non-disabled people of driving accessibility. Being disabled does not mean that you cannot drive and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t drive – according to The Guardian, up to 10 per cent of the country’s 35million driving-licence holders are estimated to be disabled, including 2.3million Blue Badge holders.

But while many disabled drivers have a very clear line dividing the able-bodied and disabled stages of their life; this isn’t the case for everyone. Some people’s disability develops over time, so it’s important that if you’re suffering from a medical condition or impairment that you don’t simply ignore it. It sounds obvious, yet people do it every day. They’re afraid of losing their independence and try to carry on as normal, which puts lives in danger.

If you’ve developed a disability, tell the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and get yourself assessed by driving instructors. Whether it’s a stroke, epilepsy, a physical problem, a visual issue or even a mental health disorder, any health problem that could affect your ability to drive is clearly dangerous. Remember: disability is not necessarily the end of independence and you might still be able to continue driving; you simply need to find out what your requirements are, and adjust the car accordingly.

After being assessed and re-learning how to drive, including adjusting for your ability level, it is vital that your vehicle is customised to make it as usable as possible. The adjustments you make will, of course, depend on your specific requirements. There is no one-size-fits-all. There can be major amendments such as wheelchair hoists, ramps and tail lifts, or less visible adjustments like hand controls, automatic transmission, steering wheel knobs, adapted mirrors and rotating seats. These modifications can cost serious money, but are imperative to enable you to drive easily and safely.

The great news is that there’s evidence to support the idea that disabled drivers are no less safe behind the wheel than their non-disabled counterparts. In fact, there have been credible suggestions that deaf drivers, for example, are safer as they tend to be more visually alert and adopt a more conservative driving style. The same is true of mobility-impaired drivers, who are more alert to hazards of poor roads. This is quite intuitive, when you think about it; if you’ve lost any senses or ability it’s logical that you’d try and “compensate” by making maximum use of what senses you do have. Modern engineering designs and technology simply build upon this foundation.

However, while impressive customisations to allow for disabled drivers are a huge step forward, in recent years there have been concerns about basic safety issues for disabled drivers. The New York Times has reported that the mobility industry is promoting quality standards after years of improvements, but that safety standards for disabled drivers have lagged behind. The paper has highlighted that the same tests and regulations that apply to standard car usage have not necessarily been applied to disability modifications, such as the performance of chair lifts in an accident, and the result of air bag deployment on heavily modified steering wheels.

This isn’t a reason to panic. It just means that to achieve the necessary safety levels, disabled drivers need to ensure they cover some bases for their car. For a start, make sure you go to the right person. Find a seller that’s clued up on basic engineering and knows the consequences of modifications for safety and durability.

Ask the car dealer about the safety standards of the vehicle; has the safety of the car been compromised in any way? Has anything been sacrificed for usability? Be sure you cover any safety exemptions. This experience is not just about buying a piece of equipment. It’s not just about a car. This is about your life. Don’t avoid asking important questions because it feels awkward or confrontational.

Don’t be afraid to get into crash test records with a car seller. They’re selling a specialised type of vehicle, so they should be prepared for specialised questions. If you are mobility-impaired, ask about the systems that secure wheelchairs, ramps and lifts in the car. And what about the components mounted on the steering wheel, column and dashboard? How safe is the airbag? Has it been designed allowing for the disability adjustments?

The main difference between disabled and non-disabled drivers on safety – especially regarding drivers adjusting to their personal level of disability – is the acceptance of disability and the planning for it when it comes to driving. As responsible drivers, it’s important for all of us to contact our doctor and notify the DVLA as soon as we develop a physical or mental condition that will affect our driving. You might not need any tangible changes to your actual vehicle, but if you do, make sure you approach the buying and driving of your car with safety as your primary concern. Don’t take risks to be more independent. It’s just not worth it.

Andrew Tipp on behalf of Chartwell Insurance

One Comment to “Disabled driver? Don’t sacrifice safety for independence”

  1. Hi guys, thanks for publishing my article!

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