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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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The MultipleSclerosis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • MegA
    8 months ago

    My original MS consultant, who also has MS, recommended an automatic.
    My present automatic has cruise control, reversing camera, headlights that come on when it’s dark and dip in town or out of town when a car approaches, coming up again when it has gone, and windscreen wipers that switch on at the appropriate speed when it starts raining.
    You can set an alarm to warn you if you change lane without signalling or if you are getting too close to the car in front, putting the brakes on automatically if you ignore the warning.
    All of this plus the satnav means I can concentrate on the actual driving, simply setting the satnav to ‘home’ if I’m lost. I have diabetes too so stop every hour or so to check my blood sugar and walk around a bit.
    I bought the car when it was a few months old and nothing is an extra added since but all part of the original package.

  • TK Sellman moderator author
    7 months ago

    That is amazing, MegA! It’s great to know these options are all so accessible these days. Having one’s independence is really a big deal when you’re chronically ill and/or physically impaired, so knowing these options can truly automate certain aspects of driving so we can “concentrate on the actual driving” is certain to bring some comfort to those who feel they are in need of options to be able to continue driving. Thanks for sharing your story!
    Tamara

  • GypsyDancer
    8 months ago

    Appreciate your articles, I can relate in so many levels.
    Family was concerned about my driving until I had to fly to Denver to help my son-in-law in February. Almost 1000 miles through snow, ice, rain, wind, hail and more rain but I made it just great with a loaded truck. Stopped to walk around helped keep pain and stiffness at a tolerable level. My loss of desired independence hurts the most emotionally. Feel I have proven myself and ready to get my own vehicle .

  • TK Sellman moderator author
    7 months ago

    Hi GypsyDancer
    Thank you for reading! And for sharing your experience. That must have been some road trip, I can’t even imagine a perfectly healthy person getting through that without some trouble! I love how it has empowered you to reclaim your independence, go for it!
    Tamara

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