Let’s Talk About Driving Safety and MS
Having one’s independence is a huge concern for people with MS. One’s freedom to move through their day unfettered may be disrupted by issues related to mobility, fatigue or cognition. This includes the ability to operate a vehicle safely.
It may be difficult to know if your driving skills have changed following an MS diagnosis.
For some, driving isn’t impaired. But for others, minor accidents, getting lost, or forgetting how to operate a car are warning signs you may not be safe.
If a loved one shares concerns about your driving, heed their warnings. It’s better to get checked out than risk a dangerous or deadly accident.
What can happen to driving skills when you have MS
- Vision problems. Impaired sight, facial pain, blurred vision, and nystagmus tremors make it hard to see even when you’re not driving.
- Reflexes. Being able to act quickly when something unexpected happens — such as braking when someone cuts into your lane — requires that you have rapid reflex functions both physically and cognitively. MS short-circuits these reflexes and may cause dangerous delays while you’re behind the wheel.
- Muscle control.Spasticity means you may not have the strength or coordination necessary to drive, and pain or cramping could also be a negative influence over your driving skills.
- Numbness. If you cannot feel your feet or legs, you probably aren’t going to be able to safely operate a vehicle unless you have hand controls installed.
- Fatigue and sleepiness. Brain fog explains issues of cognitive fatigue. Sleepiness may be caused by poor sleep due to MS-related pathology. In either case, your processing functions (such as snap judgment, decision making, threat discernment) might mean you don’t respond in a safe manner while driving when you need to. Keep in mind: most people who are sleep-deprived or have driver fatigue do not actually realize they are impaired to the same extent as a drunk driver. Please don’t drive if you have fatigue or did not sleep well the night before.
- Memory. Have you ever found yourself lost while walking around a large box store? Losing one’s sense of location can also happen while driving, even in areas that are typically familiar to you. You can thank MS for messing with memory retrieval. It’s not safe to drive if you aren’t sure where you’re at.
Getting assessed for road safety
If you’re concerned about getting into a car and driving, seek out support and advice from a driving rehabilitation specialist. They can help you decide how safe you are and give you recommendations for special equipment you can install in your car to help you.
A driving rehabilitation specialist will perform an in-office observation, followed by a driving observation.
The in-office observation considers information like medical history, memory skills, muscle strength/coordination, driving record, cognitive processing, reflexes, vision, and your ability to perform basic activities (such as dressing yourself).
The driving test allows the specialist to observe your ability to react to road hazards; to brake, accelerate, and steer; to follow the rules of the road safely; and to maintain focus while driving. If you need to stash assistive devices, they’ll review how well you get them in and out of the car, too.
After these assessments, they’ll report how road safe you are and offer suggestions for improvement.
Equipment that keeps you safe behind the wheel
Using these devices ensures you are road safe. Expect to be trained and road tested once they’re installed.
- Hand controls. These modify braking and acceleration through your hands.
- Steering knobs. These help with control over steering.
- Chair ramp/lift. For those who need to pack a chair.
- Special mirrors. Larger, wider, more strategically placed mirrors improve sight lines and reduce blind spots.
- Custom seats. Wider, modified seats make car access easier.
Some tips for driving while MSing
- It may be obvious, but if you’re experiencing any of these, it’s best to stay off the road:
- Vision impairment
- Sleep problems
- Viruses or other health concerns
- MS flares or exacerbations
- Bad weather
- If fatigue is your biggest challenge, allow for adequate rest breaks and share the driving on long road trips.
- Find a friend to chauffeur you, if you aren’t up to the task, or ask them to take care of errands.
- Avoid construction traffic or rush hour, if possible. Stops and starts cause drowsiness, and sensory overload causes cognitive confusion.
- Call a friend if you find yourself in strange territory. Try using a locator app paired with two phones (yours and a friend's).
- Print out directions or use a cellphone map application when driving to unfamiliar locations.
- If listening to a GPS guide is intolerable, print out directions, pull over multiple times and check your position as you go. Better yet, enlist a passenger as your live navigator.
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