Arthritis can affect your driving ability in a number of ways. You might, for instance, find problems with manoeuvring because of stiffness. Or else it may be difficult to grip the steering-wheel because one or both hands are painful. Getting in and out of your driving seat, reversing, and using the foot pedals could all be less easy than normal. But don’t despair. Most people with arthritis can learn to drive or carry on driving with help and advice about modifications to their car.
What the law says
If you hold a current driving licence and develop arthritis, and the illness both affects your driving and has lasted more than 3 months, you must inform the Drivers Medical Unit at the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in UK. It is unlikely that a person with arthritis would be asked to take another test.
When applying for a provisional licence you must declare that you have arthritis. Disabled drivers have to pass the same test of competence as any other drivers but may be allowed extra time.
People with arthritis often ask if they can be exempted from wearing a seat-belt. This is not advisable because of the dangers of further joint and head damage during an accident. It is better to adapt the seat and seat-belt height for your comfort. Difficulties in fastening seat-belts can often be overcome by suitable adaptations. Ask your occupational therapist about these.
If you are buying a car you should consider buying a model with power-assisted steering and automatic gears; these require less effort to use and are often available as standard on new cars.
There are certain extras in the car that may be of particular benefit to you if you have arthritis. A padded steering-wheel cover will make gripping more comfortable and may enable you to wear your wrist splints. A supportive headrest is essential for your neck and a moulded backrest may be beneficial. A panoramic rear-view mirror and blind-spot mirrors added to the wing mirrors may help to give a better view if you have limited neck movement. If you need special adaptations such as swivelling seats, wheelchair hoists or steering-wheel knobs it is worth contacting the Forum of Mobility Centres. There are a number of centres around the country which offer a free advice service and the opportunity to try out different adaptations.
If you wear splints or a collar you should ask your doctor whether you need to wear them while driving – it is usually possible to do so. But remember, if your arthritis causes giddy spells when you turn your neck you should not be driving.
If you have very severe arthritis, especially if you are learning to drive, it may be useful to visit a mobility assessment unit. The Department for Transport has a centre in Berkshire, the Mobility Advice & Vehicle Information Service (MAVIS), but other members of the Forum of Mobility Centres also offer this service. You will have to pay a fee for an assessment.
You should inform your insurance company that you have arthritis, but, since the Disability Discrimination Act, car insurance should not be any more expensive because of your illness, so shop around to see who gives the best quote. You may be eligible for a Blue Badge for parking, in which case you will be able to park close to your destination. Ask at your local social services department. Your doctor, in this case, will be asked to confirm your disability.
Buying a car can be an expensive business. If you have been receiving the Higher Rate Mobility Component of the Disability Living Allowance or the War Pensioner’s Mobility Supplement for at least 3 years you can use this to hire or buy a car under the Motability scheme. Details about this are available from Motability. If you receive either of these benefits you may also be entitled to claim exemption from Vehicle Excise Duty (Road Tax); you will need to obtain an exemption certificate from the Disability Living Allowance Unit or War Pensions Agency and then apply to your DVLA Local Office.
Your enjoyment of the journey will be greater if you follow a few simple rules:
- Adjust your seat and mirrors carefully every time you get into the car.
- Do not drive when you are tired.
- Drive for no longer than 1 hour at a time on a long journey. Then get out and stretch your legs to avoid stiffness.
- Find out from your doctor whether any of your pills affect your ability to drive. If this is likely, avoid taking them before a journey or do not drive. If you can, take any other arthritic pills just before the start of your trip so as not to suffer too much from pain and stiffness.
- Join a breakdown and recovery service. The AA and RAC can advise you about buying a second-hand car.
- Never stint the money spent on regular servicing – you need a reliable and smooth-running car.
Outdoor electric vehicles
If you feel that car driving is not for you, then consider purchasing an outdoor electric vehicle. These can also be bought with your Mobility Allowance, you do not require a driving licence or have to pay road tax, and they can be driven on the pavements. Do seek the advice of your occupational therapist, aids centre or rheumatology department and do try out the vehicle before buying it. There are second-hand models available. The Department for Work & Pensions does not provide outdoor electric vehicles at present.