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Phil’s story: Hand Controlled Driving

Phil, a Charlotte area member and a member of our only Virtual Support Group, shares his experience with hand controlled driving.

Awareness of growing numbness in my feet prompted me to see a chiropractor and a neurologist in 2014 at age 74.  As time went by, I asked my wife Shirley to drive me to places because I couldn’t feel the car brake pedal normally, and my foot had slipped off it on occasion.  That’s what led me to start exploring hand controlled driving

Exploring the options: the license

I called the North Carolina DMV to request information on what was required in the way of equipment, training, and testing of a driver who is considering the use of hand controls.  They responded with a letter that stated that my medical records had been reviewed (the DMV has medical records on people?) and that I had to have my physician complete and return a Medical Report Form within 30 days “to avoid the cancellation of your driving privilege.” What!? Ultimately, in order to keep my license, I had to tell my family doctor that I had PN so that he could complete the form and tell the DMV that I required hand controls to drive, whether I did or not. Their response was to “grant” me a driver license (meaning the one I already had), which, of course, has no restrictions, like, say, “must use hand controls,” for example.

Exploring the options: the equipment

Despite that, I looked into the installation of hand controls, which entails considerable choice and expense. One can install a variety of portable hand controls or – at greater expense – have more reliable permanent controls installed. These could be identified by a certified driver rehabilitation specialist (CDRS) after hours of evaluation and training at about $120 an hour. As far as I could determine, the nearest trainer to me was about 100 miles away (not that the DMV was at all helpful in that regard).

One day unexpected circumstances necessitated that I drive about 20 miles to a dentist’s office in Charlotte. During that drive my foot slipped off the brake pedal a number of times, and, as I pulled up to the curb of the office, my foot slipped again, and the car went over the curb. It was an unnerving experience, as was the drive home later. That did it. For three years after that I just didn’t drive at all. That wasn’t as bad as it sounds, since I was retired and didn’t really have to be anywhere. Still, I didn’t like being a passenger, especially since my saintly wife and I have rather different driving styles.

Making a commitment

In April 2017 I got a phone call from a young man who had heard about my hand control inquiries from a local commercial dealer I had visited. He claimed that he could install hand controls at a reasonable cost and said he wouldn’t require proof of my having completed a training class from a Certified Driving Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS), which is a requirement from most dealerships. He said he uses a wheelchair and had no problem teaching himself very quickly how to drive with hand controls. My wife drove us to his place in the area, and we rode with him as he demonstrated how he used hand controls. We were impressed by him and his facility, did a little checking, and asked him a few days later to make the installation. Of course, it was crucial that Shirley be able to drive the car normally, which has indeed been the case, requiring only the flip of a switch. I opted for the standard “push-rock” hand controls and requested a steering knob. (Previously, in practice-driving in a high school parking lot with just one hand on the steering wheel, I had found it very difficult to make a 90 degree [or more] turn with just one hand. Shirley somehow manages that better than I do.)

We left the car at the installer’s place one day and picked it up the next. I must say that I was not happy when he then presented me with a paper I had to sign that said I will NOT drive the vehicle until proper training has been obtained and I am approved and authorized to drive by a properly licensed and certified driver training instructor. Naturally, I asked him about that, but he basically shrugged it off and said he was confident I would pick it up quickly. There wasn’t much I could do about it at that point.

The learning process

I got my initial feel for the controls on the school parking lot.  Next, I practiced in local subdivisions in our relatively rural suburb. Gradually, I exposed myself to traffic in town and on major highways. For the first several months I was tense and totally focused on driving.  I wanted no distractions, like the radio or windshield wipers. I saw only what was immediately in front of me on the road. I had bad dreams about pulling the control which accelerates, when I should push it, which brakes. I really want to have both hands on the wheel in case I have to swerve very sharply in an emergency. That hasn’t happened yet, but awareness of the possibility is always there.

For me, using a steering knob has been a significant adjustment in its own right. I use it only for turns or sharp curves.  I still must be aware of its position at all times to be able to grab it if needed quickly. The car handles differently with a knob. The knob easily snaps in to and out of an inconspicuous fixture on the wheel, by the way.

Recommended Training and Other Resources

No doubt I would have been better off if I had invested in CDRS training, although I saved a lot of time, money, and inconvenience. Here’s the website for the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists [1] if you want to look into that possibility yourself. Look under “Directory & Services” to find a CDRS in your state.

Here’s an article [2] I found to be helpful when I started looking into hand control driving –
You might want to check this article [3] and video [4] as well.

We thank Phil for sharing his experience with hand controlled driving.   For more information on the Virtual Support Group [5], and other Support [6] Groups around the U.S and Canada, check the Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy Support Groups [6] page on our website [7].