Consumer research for older and disabled people

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Safety and adapted vehicles

Adapted controls are safe. However, any modification to the inside of your car and to the way you drive it introduces new risks. Successful adaptations should minimise these additional risks.

If you have driven before, it may be better to choose controls that are as close as possible to standard. You will learn faster, make fewer mistakes and feel more confident.

If you are new to driving, or have made significant changes to the controls, you will need training from a specialist driving instructor. Your local Mobility Centre should be able to help you find one.

Secondary safety

The extent to which the design of a vehicle protects you in a crash is known as secondary safety. Cars these days have many secondary safety features, including airbags, strengthened areas to protect you, deformable materials and steering columns that collapse away from you in a crash. The adaptation of car controls involves compromises in design, and some may interfere with the protective features built into the car.

In our survey, nearly nine out of ten people said that secondary safety was important to them. However, with some equipment, safety comes at a price. You need to balance risk against cost. Our view is that controls should be designed with good secondary safety. Where this is not possible, you need enough information to be aware of the risk you are incurring. Some common-sense rules based on research we carried out on this subject in 1998 are:

  • avoid push-pull controls or brake levers that have rigid bars or pivots close to your knee, because they could cause injury in a crash
  • avoid adaptations in which bulky equipment is mounted in the footwell
  • avoid devices that will stiffen the steering column and prevent it collapsing progressively in a crash
  • look for designs in which solid parts are protected by padding

Automatic fire extinguishers

Fires in cars are very rare. if a fire does start, you may find it difficult to handle a fire extinguisher, so you'll need to act quickly to give yourself more time to get out of the car.

Automatic fire extinguishers are fitted as a matter of course on all high-tech conversions funded by Motability. They are a good idea for everybody. The fire extinguisher is fitted to the car, and is connected to a plastic tube that runs around the cabin and the engine compartment. If a fire breaks out, the tube bursts at the point nearest the fire to let out the extinguishing fluid. These systems are available from converters and adaptation companies, and cost from £30 to £300 depending on the type and model.


Airbags are fitted to most new cars and they form an integral part of the car's safety system. In an accident, they inflate quickly to protect you by providing a cushion between you and any hard surfaces that may injure you. Airbags are fitted in the steering wheel and dashboard, and increasingly in the door or seat to protect you from the side ('side airbags') and in the foot well to prevent you from sliding off the seat in an accident ('knee-bolster airbags').

Airbags and adapted controls

There has been some concern about how adapted controls may affect the working of the airbag. Tests and expert opinion suggest that:

  • Hand controls fitted to the rim of the steering wheel do not stop the bag inflating. The bag should not damage them, although they may get pushed out of place.
  • Joystick controls should not be fitted in front of the airbag, but to one side of it.
  • Rods connecting hand controls to pedals should be close to the steering column and preferably enclosed to keep them out of the way of knee-bolster airbags.
  • It is usually better to leave an airbag in place and switched on even if your controls may get in the way if it inflates.

Airbags and seating position

You could be injured by the airbag if you sit too close to it, though modern cars have a multi-stage inflation system, which reduces this risk. Safety experts recommend:

  • sitting as far back as is practicable
  • if you have an adjustable steering wheel, tilt it down slightly so that the airbag is less likely to hit your head or neck directly

Don't end up in an uncomfortable driving position or one in which you have to strain to use the controls. Check that your driving position does not restrict your view from the car.

Removing or disabling airbags

When a small child is travelling in the front passenger seat in a child seat, then the airbag should be switched off on that side. Apart from this, it is not recommended to remove or disable airbags, unless it is absolutely necessary. If an airbag does need to be removed, this must be done by the dealer who supplied the car or an approved airbag specialist. The car's manufacturer will have information on how it can be done safely.

Check that removing one airbag will not stop other airbags working. You must also tell your insurer.  If an airbag has been removed or deactivated, this may cause problems for the MOT test. To avoid difficulties, you should discuss this with the test centre when booking your MOT.

Last updated: June 2012

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