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Motoring with restricted growth

This guide outlines some of the key things for people with restricted growth to consider when choosing or adapting a car. It also directs you to the sections of our website that have the detailed information you'll need. The information here comes from talking to people with restricted growth, as well as other experts. 

You can also download this as a complete guide: Motoring with restricted growth (PDF). Or you can receive printed publications by post (UK only).

Acknowledgements: This guide was produced by Rica with funding from Motability and in partnership with the Forum of Mobility Centres and RGA.

Introduction

Having a car means you can be independent and travel to work, shops and leisure activities when you please. A car is one of the most expensive items you are likely to buy, so it is important to choose one that is going to suit you for some years. 

Below, we give details of how a small stature might affect your driving and what you can do to meet these challenges, as well as safety concerns you should know about.

More detailed information on choosing, adapting and using a car can be found in the following guides. We note below which parts are of specific interest to drivers with restricted growth.

Choosing a car

This guide covers a range of things to think about if you have a disability. It includes details of features that may help you and ways of adapting a car to suit you. In particular, you should bear in mind these factors:

  • look for useful features on standard production vehicles - remember that the less a car is modified, the higher its resale value
  • electrically operated seats that go up and down, back and forwards, at the press of a button
  • a seat pad that does not slope up at the front, lifting your legs away from the floor and from the pedals
  • adjustable steering wheel that you can position far away for getting in and out, and up close for steering
  • automatic transmission - a must for many disabled drivers, it makes a car easier to drive and cheaper to convert

Car controls

There is a range of adaptations that make motoring easier for drivers of small stature. See this guide for in-depth information on types of adaptations and how to get them. For advice on which controls may be particularly useful, we recommend that you first read our page on Car controls to help people with restricted growth.

Getting into and out of a car

This guide covers helpful equipment for entering and leaving a car, and details of various lifting systems. In particular, you may find these sections useful:

  • simple techniques to make getting in and out easier 
  • turning cushions and swivel seats
  • hoists that lift and lower you on to a car seat
  • lifting seats that swing out and into the car, lowering and locking into a position to suit you

Also worth noting is that hand-holds above the car door might be beyond your reach, so check what you can hold on to if you need support getting in and out. Partly close the door as you get in if you can't reach the handle from the seat - or use a hooked stick. There are strap extensions for reaching the boot or hatch lid.

Low sills are easier to lift your legs over - close to the ground for getting in and close to the car floor for getting out. A low seat is good for getting in and out but you'll need it to be adjustable so that you are at the correct height for driving. 

Getting a wheelchair into a car

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 restricted growth

People of small stature drive all makes, models and sizes of car. Whether you have short arms and/or short legs, you must be able to reach all of the driving controls - pedals, parking brake, gear selector and steering wheel - and have all-round visibility. As well as making sure you can see over the dashboard, check that bulky door mirrors do not block your front view or the headrest your rear view.

Any car you drive will need modification to suit your exact body dimensions. Pedal extensions and seat modifications are likely to be required.

You must notify the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and your insurance company whenever your ability to drive changes significantly. You must also tell the insurance company of any car adaptations you have. For more information on getting a driving licence, pick up the leaflet 'What you need to know about driving licences (D100)' from a post office or get it online from the DVLA website.

Seating

A low seat may be good for getting in and out of your car, but you will need to be higher to drive, so have an adjustable seat - and check it goes high enough for you. It may be possible to have an existing seat converted to be higher, made height-adjustable, swivel or to be powered. Costs start at about £800 from adaptation firms. If swivelling helps, there are turning cushions (£20 - £80 from general aids suppliers) and replacement swivel seats, for around £700 upwards, from adaptation firms. 

There are seat belt devices - available from motor accessory shops - for reaching the belt, easing the tension or altering the anchorage point on the door pillar. For safety in any accident, the straps need to cross your shoulder and fit low across the pelvis, avoiding your stomach.

Airbags

Airbags are increasingly fitted in the front of cars. They are designed to inflate extremely fast, to cushion you from injury by the steering wheel or dashboard in a severe crash. Sensors in the car activate the airbag if the severity and direction of the impact warrant it.

However, research has shown that shorter and lighter motorists - under 160 cm (63 in) and 55 kg (121 lb) - are more likely to be hurt by the airbag. If you sit closer than 32 cm (just under 13 in) to reach the steering wheel and pedals, you are likely to be in the 'airbag deployment zone'. Also, if you have your arm across the wheel - as you will at times with a steering ball or spinner - and the airbag fires, the force is likely to break your arm. You must not use any steering device with a fixed bar across the centre of the steering wheel.

If your car has an airbag and an adjustable steering wheel, tilt it downwards slightly to face your chest rather than your head to reduce the risk of injury. Reclining the seat might also help. Fortunately, 'smart' airbags that inflate fully only if sensors detect suitable seat and driver positions are becoming available.

Adaptation firms sometimes need to remove an airbag - for example, when replacing a standard steering wheel with a small one. If your height and driving position make you unsafe with an airbag, they or a main dealer will deactivate or remove it only as a last resort. Always wear your seat belt and make sure it is close fitting and in good condition.

Learning to drive

Mobility Centres and Mobilise can help you to find a driving instructor who specialises in teaching disabled drivers. They use cars with adapted controls or will teach you in your own vehicle.

You can also download this as a complete guide: Motoring with restricted growth (PDF). Or you can receive printed publications by post (UK only).

Last updated: November 2011


Main page: Motoring with particular disabilities