Enabling Tetraplegics to Drive

In the last 25 years technology has come along in leaps and bounds and now it is possible for even the most disabled people to get behind the wheel of a car and drive it safely. If you are a wheelchair user, or you suffer from a severe disability then don't give up hope of driving yourself, contact your local specialist and they will advise you on what equipment will suit your needs. This is what I did and I have been driving for 20 years now, continue reading and I'll tell you all about it.

I was 16 when I had my accident so had never had any experience driving a motor vehicle.  Once I reached 17 years old my friends and cousin all took their driving test and got their own vehicles.  It was incredibly frustrating seeing them enjoying themselves, driving around, taking out their girlfriends and basically doing what I wanted to do so badly.  I remember going out with Gary one evening whilst I will still living at the Cheshire home, I think he had got himself a Renault or something similar, anyway he came to the Cheshire Home and somehow managed to manhandle me into the passenger seat, I think I did almost end up on the floor at some stage.  I do remember feeling really weird, the last time we had really gone out and had a really good laugh was when we were at school, now he was taking me out in his own vehicle.

I was absolutely desperate to drive, unfortunately I was not in the position to get a car at the time.  In 1989 I went to Crowthorne in Berkshire to have an assessment at a specialist driving centre, however they totally screwed it up and basically gave me the go-ahead to use a steering wheel which was the wrong decision as I would find out a few years later.

Chrysler Plymouth VoyagerIn 1992 I bought myself a Chrysler Plymouth Voyager which being an American vehicle, needed to be imported from the United States. I approached a company in Coventry who were going to fit controls so I could drive it.  They fitted some very simplistic controls which turned out to be completely useless as I just couldn't turn the steering wheel properly.  So I had my vehicle at last, something I had waited years for, however I was still in the same position as before and could only use it as a passenger.

It was another 2 ½ years before I decided to have a crack at the driving again.  I heard about a company called Steering Developments who are based in Hemel Hempstead.  They specialise in adapting vehicles for the disabled driver and this time they assessed me properly to establish what kind of controls I would need.  Once that was all done, it was time to get the car fitted out with the controls.  The job itself took a few weeks to do.  Once it was finished, I traveled back up to Hemel Hempstead to test the car out. 

Steering Developments had use of a massive disused World War II runway, this place was absolutely huge, it was the perfect place to go and test the vehicle without the risk of crashing into something.  As soon as I started the engine, engage the controls I knew everything was going to be okay. It was absolutely fantastic, for the first time in my life I was controlling the car completely by myself, I was able to control the car easily with the use of this brilliant joystick control system. It really is hard to describe the feelings I had, euphoric doesn't even come close to how I felt when I realised  I was going to be able to drive by myself, I had my independence at long last

I started taking driving lessons in November 1994, I would go out as much as I could with the driving instructor but would also get my friends to sit with me whilst I was driving. May 1, 1995 was a very important day, that was the day that I was going to take my driving test over in Newton Abbot. It was a beautifully warm spring day, the sun was shining and it was absolutely perfect for taking a driving test. I must admit I was rather nervous but I was also very confident as well, I knew that I was more than capable of passing the test without any problems whatsoever. Contrary to what a lot of people think, I didn't need a special driving instructor nor a specialised driving test, the head examiner sat with me on my driving test. I suppose it was around 45 min when he instructed me to drive back to the driving centre. On the way back he was very chatty and friendly and was asking me about my vehicle, I was pretty confident that he was quite pleased with my driving and was going to pass me. Well, the words "congratulations you have passed your driving test" came out of his mouth when we got back and I just took a big deep breath and said YESSSSS! The very next day after taking my driving test we all went on holiday to France, this is in fact the first place I ever drove independently without anyone else in the car with me, I thought I did really well considering they drive on the wrong side of the road on the continent.


The importance of being assessed properly

If you are disabled and are thinking that maybe would like to get a car of your own then there are various companies in the UK that will be able to help you. All you need to do is contact them and arrange an appointment. They will carry out a full assessment testing strength and dexterity, this will then give everyone a good idea of what type of driving controls you will need. There are various driving controls available made to suit all aspects of disability, unfortunately these driving controls do not come cheap. I'll tell you right now that Space Drive disability driving controls cost an arm and a leg, we are talking a minimum of £40,000 to get a high-level tetraplegic driving. Speaking from my own personal point of view, the money doesn't matter at all, being able to drive independently is the best thing I've ever done. It is worth mentioning that if you qualify for a vehicle under the Motability Scheme then they will assess you and if you need a vehicle fitted with the top of the range driving controls then you will get it. I know this for sure because a friend of mine has got a Volkswagen van fitted with exactly the same controls as mine and he obtained his vehicle under the Motability Scheme.


My drive from wheelchair Mercedes sprinter

Penn sitting next to his Mercedes-Benz van

In 2006 my Chrysler Voyager developed serious mechanical problems, mostly brought on by the complete negligence of the local Chrysler dealership in Exeter. Not wanting to chuck any more money at it, I took the decision to purchase a brand-new vehicle. There was absolutely no way I was going to purchase another Chrysler. Not because I didn't like the model, but because I would have to then rely on the dealership in Exeter if anything went wrong with the vehicle. I approached Adaptacar in North Devon as they are the nearest disability driving specialist to me. I'd also got to know them a little so knew that they were going to be able to help me with a new vehicle. I looked at a couple of vehicles including the Mercedes Vito and the Kia Sedona. However I opted for the Mercedes Sprinter in the end, purely for its size and headroom. Because I am very tall, there are very few vehicles that can accommodate me. The Mercedes sprinter comes in three different roof height sizes, I've got the smallest, however even the tallest person would have no problem driving one of these vehicles.

In the 14 years since I bought my Chrysler, technology had come along leaps and bounds and there was now a lot more hand controls available for high-level tetraplegics. I was given the option to replicate what I had been used to, or go with a completely new system. I decided to go with some relatively new disabled driving technology that was manufactured by a company called Paravan in Germany. I opted for joystick steering thinking that it would be very similar to what I was used to. I don't think I anticipated just how different the two systems were. 

My Mercedes Sprinter is fitted with a Ricon lift which is located at the rear of the vehicle. I use a simple pushbutton remote control to deploy the ramp in order to enter the vehicle, and vice versa. I've seen some vans that have the lift located on the side sliding door. Bear in mind that locating your lift on the side of the vehicle may restrict you when you want to find parking. For instance, I can drive into most parking spaces because I enter and access the vehicle from the rear. You can't deploy a lift if you have a car parked right next to you. However, there is nothing wrong with having two lifts fitted on the van, this then gives you more options for parking.

My van is completely automatic and I have the Space Drive electronic gear selector fitted. If you are able to use a standard automatic gear shift lever then you could save yourself a lot of money and just use the standard gearstick.. I have an adaption on my ignition key which makes it easier for me to turn the key. There is an electronic ignition key available which means you only have to press a button to start the vehicle.

I drive my Mercedes sprinter while sitting in my Permobil wheelchair. A vehicle is supposed to give you independence, if you need help getting in and out then you don't have your own independence. I don't need any help at all getting in or out of my vehicle and I can easily go for the whole day on my own.

There are other vehicles on the market that you can drive from a wheelchair. The Mercedes Vito is one such vehicle that I looked at myself. Unfortunately if you are very tall like me then you may struggle with some of the smaller bands. Thankfully the Mercedes has plenty of headroom say will have no problem both getting in the vehicle, and also sitting inside the vehicle, there's no chance your head will touch the ceiling.


Joystick steering may not be suitable for your disability

You are the best person to assess your disability. You know what you are capable of and you know how your body can react. Some of the companies that provide these adaptions will carry out an assessment, testing how strong you are and exactly what controls are best suited to your disability. Joystick steering is absolutely fantastic for anyone who has very limited arm movement or simply cannot turn a steering wheel. Now I've used joystick steering for quite a long time so I feel qualified to give my opinion on whether you should opt for it. Joystick steering is extremely sensitive, there is very little room for error. It only takes fairly small movements of the joystick to turn the steering wheel. Therefore if you are not able to use your hand to make these small movements then joystick is probably not suitable for you. Also, if you suffer from spasms that may affect your fingers and hand then joystick is definitely not suitable for you. I found out the hard way that an involuntary spasm in the hand can end in disaster. A couple of years ago I crashed my van into a signpost because of a spasm in my hand. That's why I now use the mini 8 inch wheel to operate my steering.


space drive mini wheel


Space Drive mini wheel

I had a bit of a mishap in September 2014, after a long trip to Salisbury I was driving very slowly around a corner when I suffered a spasm in my hand and it slipped off the joystick. I ended up having a very close encounter with a road sign, put it this way, the road sign on the front of my van became extremely close friends. The insurance took care of the repairs and the vehicle came back to me around December 2014. However, I then discovered that something wasn't quite right with my disabled driving controls. Adaptacar took the vehicle and then gave me the bad news that there was a serious problem that had actually rendered the controls unsalvageable. To cut a long story short, my system was very much out of date and used analogue, the new systems are now digital. So I was really in the same position as when TVs switch from analogue over to digital. Luckily for me Adaptacar had a used unit in their possession that had come out of another vehicle. It just so happened that it was a mini wheel, rather than the joystick that I had been using. So for a very reasonable price, I had the steering adaption completely replaced, and I also had the brake and accelerator redesigned.

The mini wheel is completely different from the joystick. It's located in exactly the same place so I use the same hand to steer the vehicle. However instead of me wrapping my fingers around a joystick, I now have a three pronged tetra grip which is attached to an 8 inch metal disc. In order for me to steer the vehicle, I simply turn the small 8 inch disc which obviously has no effort whatsoever. As soon as I started driving again using the mini wheel I realise just how much I actually love driving. I was obviously not happy with the joystick, maybe I didn't quite have the confidence in the system, I really don't know. But the mini wheel is just fabulous, is absolutely perfect for anyone who doesn't have any hand or finger movement. You actually get to move something whilst you are driving which is actually much more enjoyable than using a joystick. However the biggest improvement I have found with the mini wheel is that I believe it is much safer than the joystick. Don't misunderstand me, the joystick is a fabulous design that gives you precise steering. However, because the joystick is so sensitive it is not very forgiving and therefore if you accidentally push the joystick too far when you are driving you could well end up having an accident.

I'm not really qualified to give new drivers advice on what they should or shouldn't have, I can only give you my opinion based on my own personal experience. The joystick works great if you have good hand movement and are able to hold the joystick without the chance of your hand slipping, or going into spasm. If there's any chance that you will lose control of your hand then you should avoid having a joystick fitted to your car. It may be a case that hand spasms are extremely rare. This was the case with me, occasionally I would get a spasm which would travel to my hand, but I never experienced a serious problem in nearly 7 years of driving. However that one time when I did have a bad spasm, I ended up knocking over a road sign which resulted in me nearly writing off my van. Therefore I think that for those of us who don't have any movement in our hands or fingers, a three-pronged tetra grip attached directly to a mini steering wheel is by far the safest way of controlling your vehicle's steering. A three-pronged tetra grip is designed for people who have limited or no movement in their hands and fingers. It enables you to fix your hand firmly to whatever the grip is attached to. I've also got an armrest which supports my elbows on both the mini steering wheel, and the brake/accelerator. Without me being able to support myself I would probably find it uncomfortable going around corners, in fact you may even struggle to steer properly if you are having problems with your balance. I really love the mini wheel by Space Drive, it's actually nice to look forward to getting into the van to drive again.


Redesigned brake and accelerator

My previous brake and accelerator were extremely sensitive, especially the acceleration. I actually put it down to the power of the engine, however I now realise that it was down to the way the design had been put together. Just like the mini wheel, I'm also using a three pronged tetra grip which is attached directly to the lever on the brake and accelerator. It is very important that you keep the distance between your hand and the brake/accelerator lever as short as possible. As soon as you put any distance between the two you will make things that much more sensitive. If that confuses you then imagine you are sitting in an electric wheelchair. You then attach a 12 inch extension to the short joystick found on electric wheelchairs. What you would do is make things extremely sensitive and whereas you would take all the effort out of moving the joystick, you would actually find it very difficult to control the wheelchair. I hope that makes sense.


Mercedes-sprinter-van-with-rear-access-liftI enter and exit the vehicle through the rear using a Ricon wheelchair lift. Using a remote-control which hangs around my neck, I have to press buttons to control the ramp. If you've got a Mercedes sprinter van the need to have the choice to have the ramp fitted on the side entrance, however I would think very carefully before doing this, from personal experience having a rear entry vehicle is a lot better when it comes to finding places in car parks to park. If you've got a large ramp that is deployed from the side then you are very limited to where you can park and you would definitely need plenty of space, exiting from the rear means I can pretty much park in any regular parking space.

Something that will have to be included in your vehicle adaption is a clamp down system for your wheelchair. These are absolutely vital for safety as you cannot afford to have your wheelchair move whilst you are driving. The way it works is you have a system screwed to the floor of your vehicle, they normally come in the form of a large metal plate which screw firmly to the chassis of the vehicle. Another smaller piece of equipment will be attached to the underside of your wheelchair. Yet when you drive into the driving space you press a button and your chair will automatically be secured so it cannot move. There are lots of systems available, unfortunately they are quite expensive so expect to pay several hundred pounds just to have a wheelchair restraint fitted.


Use a suitable body restraint

Permobil body restraint strapWhen driving a motor vehicle from your wheelchair is very important that you are secured properly in your wheelchair. Even manoeuvring a gentle curvature or bend in the road will create a degree of GeForce, the last thing you want to be doing is falling to one side. The easiest option is to get a good body restraint which will give you a lot of support and stop you from moving around in the wheelchair would you don't want to. However, your mobility specialist will be able to advise you on what they can fit in your car to give you the right amount of body support. My seatbelt has a special locking mechanism which means it acts as a restraint of the stop me falling forward, unlike a normal seatbelt that allow you movement in the car. But since having my new driving controls fitted I am now using an extra body restraint strap which attaches to my wheelchair. It is important to remember that any type of body restraint which is either wrapped around you, or attached to the wheelchair should not be confused with a vehicle seatbelt. The vehicle seatbelt must be worn at all times when driving. 


A very big thank you

I want to take this opportunity to say a very big thank you to all the people at Adaptacar op in North Devon for all they have done to help me continue driving. They have always been there to support me when ever I have had problems and have bent over backwards to get things right. 

Specialist insurance for disabled drivers

Ever since I started driving Fish insurancehave insured my car. They are a specialist insurance company that specialise in disabled insurance. If you are in the United Kingdom then why not contact them and see what deal they can give you. at the moment my insurance is just over £500 a year. This covers myself and one other names driver to drive my vehicle.


Some companies that install Space Drive

Here are three companies in the UK who are registered Space Drive installers. Funnily enough, I have used all three of them over the years

http://www.adaptacar.co.uk/   South Molton North Devon,  Telephone: 017695 72785

http://www.steeringdevelopments.co.uk/   Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire,  Telephone: 01442 212918

http://www.jdhc.co.uk/   Coventry,  Telephone: 024 7646 0833


Please display your blue badge properly at all time

Most disabled drivers are eligible for a blue badge.  The blue badge is an integral part of being able to drive with independence, it gives you the privilege to park your vehicle in purposely designated parking spaces that are intended to make the lives of disabled drivers easier.  Unfortunately a minority of people take advantage of this fact and blatantly misuse the blue badge for their own selfish purpose.  Because of the misuse of the blue badge, genuine disabled drivers have now got to be extra careful when it comes to displaying the blue badge in their car.  The parking authorities are really vigilant and failure to display the blue badge properly will almost certainly result in a parking fine, as I found out recently.  I made the mistake of displaying my parking badge the wrong way around, this meant that the parking attendant was not able to validate my blue badge, which in turn rendered my parking permit invalid.  At the time I was extremely angry, I wrote to the parking authority complaining that I shouldn't have received a parking fine, surely the parking attendant would have realised I was a genuine disabled driver?.  However, I have had time to think about it carefully and even though it is rather annoying, the parking attendants are only doing their jobs, if they are not able to validate the blue badge then they are perfectly within their rights to issue you with a fine.  I'm afraid as annoying as it may seem, this is the best way to weed out the scumbags and cheats who are taking advantage of the blue badge.

When you receive your blue badge make sure that you fully understand how to use it properly because valid or not, failure to display your blue badge correctly is no excuse and you will get a fine.  Even blue badges that are upside down will be viewed as not being displayed properly and you will get a fine.  First-time offenders who received a fine for not displaying the badge properly will normally be given the benefit of the doubt, the parking department are actually quite understanding and will not follow through with the fine if you can prove it was a genuine mistake. 

According to the rules of using the blue badge, the badge and clock must be placed on the dashboard with the wheelchair symbol facing outwards.  The rules also state that the blue badge must only be used when parking your vehicle.  I'm not sure if the powers be have taken into account those of us who are not able to pick things up, or reach across to the glove compartment.  I am probably like thousands of other disabled drivers were I have no choice but to leave my badge and clock on permanent display.  

So if you do use a blue badge always make sure that you follow the rules properly and display it so that it is totally visible to the parking attendant.  The rules only take 5 min to read, that 5 min could save you quite a lot of money.