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Motoring with arthritis

Here we outline some useful features on cars for drivers with arthritis to consider, as well as specialist products and techniques that may help when choosing or adapting a vehicle.

Download our booklet here: Motoring with arthritis (PDF).
Print copies are available free of charge by post Rica printed publications (UK only).

Acknowledgements: The Motoring with arthritis booklet was produced by Rica with funding from Motability and in partnership with the Forum of Mobility Centres, Arthritis Care, Arthritis Research UK and the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS). The information here comes from consulting people who have arthritis, as well as other experts.

Introduction

Having a car and being able to drive can provide a great deal of independence. However, pain, weakness and stiff joints may make it difficult to get into and out of a car and use the controls. Sitting in the same position for a long period of time can also lead to backache and tiredness.

You may well be able to continue driving an unadapted car, particularly if it has automatic transmission and power-assisted steering. These features make it easier to drive if you don't have much strength in your shoulders, hands or arms. Other helpful options, such as height-adjustable seats and steering, are found on a wide range of cars too. The less a car has to be modified, the higher its resale value.

However, if your arthritis means you have difficulty driving, consider the adaptations available for primary and secondary car controls. In addition, it's well worth getting individual advice from a Mobility Centre.

Rica motoring guidance

For general advice, see our pages on Motoring with particular disabilities and, for older drivers, Driving safely for life. Below we consider choosing a car, car controls, getting in and out and driving with arthritis.

Choosing a car

Our section choosing a car covers a range of things to think about if you have a disability, details of features that may help you and ways of adapting a car to suit you. In particular, think about:

  • automatic transmission - a must for many disabled drivers, it makes a car easier to drive and cheaper to adapt
  • power-assisted steering - on some cars the effort needed can be lightened by the dealership or by specialist converters
  • cruise control to maintain a constant speed
  • handbrakes can be stiff if you have a weak hand and wrist - check that you can put it on and off

If your joints are stiff and painful, you may need a large door opening, so you can get in and out without having to bend too much. If you have weakness or tenderness, or find reaching difficult, smaller doors are easier. Two- and three-door cars generally have wider doorways than four- and five-door ones. Use our car search to find the models that will be most suitable for you.

When comparing cars, look for:

  • doors that move smoothly and aren't stiff
  • door openings that suit your needs
  • no sills or low, narrow sills
  • conveniently placed handholds
  • seat heights that suit you
  • electrically operated seats that adjust both ways, so you get the best position for getting in and for driving

Car controls

If your arthritis makes it difficult, tiring or painful to get in and out, or drive a standard car, there are adaptations that make motoring easier. See the section car controls for in-depth information on types of adaptations and how to get them. In addition, consider the  following:

  • Steering - You can make the steering wheel rim easier and less painful to grip by padding it with foam tape or a thick wheel cover.
  • Changing gear - Automatic transmission means fewer gear changes and also helps with pulling away if you have hill start assist.
  • Hand controls - If you cannot use foot pedals at all, different types of hand control can be fitted on an automatic car. Ask for advice from your doctor or therapist on whether hand controls are likely to aggravate your arthritis.
  • Mirrors - A panoramic mirror (around £25 from adaptation firms) can be placed over or replace a standard rear-view mirror and will be particularly helpful if you have severe neck stiffness. Stick-on ‘blind spot’ mirrors (from £2 in motor-accessory shops) extend what you can see in door mirrors.

Getting into and out of a car

We look at helpful equipment and details of various lifting systems if you need more help. Some simple accessories for getting into your car may be all you need.

Sometimes, just the right technique for getting into a car is enough to do the trick. The best way to get in is to sit first then turn and bring your legs in; do the reverse to get out. Consider the following: 

  • To help get your legs in, try looping a stiff length of webbing or a walking stick over your foot to pull it by hand over the door sill.
  • To help with swivelling in, you can simply put a plastic bag on the seat, or use a specialist swivelling cushion. Make sure you remove it for the journey. Specialist swivelling seats are also available.
  • To help you reach the seat belt and wear it comfortably, many newer cars have adjustable seat-belt fixings. You can also get accessories to make the belt easier to reach or adjust its position. The straps need to cross your shoulder and fit low across the pelvis, avoiding your stomach.
  • If reaching the boot to close it is a problem, you can fit an electronic boot closer or try fixing a strap to it.

Getting a wheelchair into a car

We provide a run-down of equipment to help you stow or carry a wheelchair:

  • hoists that lift a manual or powered chair into a vehicle
  • rooftop hoists that lift a manual chair up and on to the roof of a car
  • racks that carry a wheelchair on the back of a car
  • trailers and ramps

Driving with arthritis

Depending on the type and severity of your condition, your driving will be affected differently. Here is some advice from drivers with arthritis, as well as specific points to consider.

  • Try out a car and any adaptations on one of your worst days, not when you're feeling well.
  • Make sure the seat is comfortable and provides good support - adjust it and the steering wheel to suit you. Cushioning, electrically adjustable seats and heated seats all help.
  • Take plenty of breaks to avoid getting stiff. Leave enough time for this.
  • Make sure any painkillers you use when driving do not cause drowsiness or otherwise affect your ability to drive.
  • If you wear splints to support your joints, ask your occupational therapist (OT) if it's appropriate to wear them when driving. If they make driving difficult, the OT may adapt them.
  • If you have recently had surgery, ask your doctor to advise you when it will be safe to drive again.

Legal requirements

You must tell the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) if your arthritis affects your ability to drive, especially if you need adapted controls. The DVLA will assess your fitness to drive and may ask you to have a medical examination or a driving assessment. You may:

  • be given a full licence
  • be given a temporary licence, valid for one, two or three years
  • be given a licence to drive an automatic or a car with specialist controls (this will be coded on your licence)
  • in extreme cases, be refused a licence

You can appeal if you do not agree with the DVLA's decision.

For more information on getting a driving licence:

You need to tell your insurance company about your disability and any adaptations that you use, as well as any limitations on your driving licence.

If you are learning to drive or returning to driving with adaptations, you'll benefit from lessons with a specialist instructor. They use cars with adapted controls or will teach you in your own vehicle. DMUK or your Mobility Centre can help you find an instructor locally.

Download the booklet here: Motoring with arthritis (PDF). Or you can receive printed publications by post (UK only).

Useful contacts for people with arthritis include:

Arthritis Care

Arthritis Digest

Arthritis Research UK

National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS)

Last updated: December 2015


Main page: Motoring with particular disabilities