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Driving with a physical disability

Having a condition with a physical disability such as a stroke, epilepsy or Parkinson´s disease may cause the person to be a dangerous driver. However, this depends on the severity of the condition. In fact, many people with physical disabilities are able to drive safely. That is why no specific laws in South Africa banning people from driving with a physical disability exist.

The main thing to remember if you have epilepsy, Parkinson´s disease or have had a stroke is to be aware of the warning signs of dangerous driving. These include:

  • Weakness in the arms or legs
  • Loss of coordination
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness or severe headaches
  • Drifting across lanes, or feeling disorientated

If these symptoms happen, stop driving immediately and consult with your doctor.

Driving with poor eyesight

Eyesight is probably the most important sense used when driving. We rely on our eyes while driving, to absorb visual information about the road and car. However, eyesight can deteriorate because of age, exposure to UV sun rays and other environmental factors or complications of chronic conditions such as diabetes.

Certain eye diseases can affect your vision and driving ability. These include:

Cataracts

A cataract is a cloudiness of the lens of the eye, like frosted bathroom windows. Light cannot pass to the retina of the eye properly, resulting in blurred vision or double vision. This can make it difficult for drivers to see road signs, other cars or pedestrians.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma occurs when the eye pressure becomes more than the eye can tolerate, leading to painless but gradual damage of the optic nerve. The result is tunnel vision that affects your peripheral (side) vision.

Diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy damages the retina of the eye, caused by poorly controlled diabetes. This may result in blurred images or even blindness.

It is essential to maintain good eye care with regular check-ups and eye tests with an eye specialist every two years. If your eyesight has deteriorated you may need to use prescription glasses and sunglasses. Keep your windscreen clean and reduce sun glare by wearing UV protective sunglasses.

If you do wear prescription glasses, it´s a great idea to keep a spare pair in your car so that you´re never in a position to drive without them. If you wear contact lenses, it might be a good idea to keep eye solution with you to avoid dry eyes.

Loss of hearing and driving

Hearing is not only an issue to deaf drivers, but also for those who have slightly impaired hearing loss. Even those drivers with perfect hearing may be reducing the effectiveness of their ears through distracted driving behaviour (loud music, earphones, talking on a cellphone, arguing with a passenger).

Hearing is important on the roads to detect ambulances, police or fire engine sirens, warning hooters, dogs barking, cyclist bells or even strange engine noises.

Research shows that deaf drivers do not have more accidents or fines than hearing drivers, so there should be no reason why the deaf cannot drive. In fact the traffic laws are based on the sense of sight. However, it is the responsibility of individual drivers to assess their driving disability and make changes for these, and in the case of impaired hearing, this may be a hearing aid.

Driving with dementia

Alzheimer´s disease is the most common form of dementia, often diagnosed in people over 65 years of age. Although each person experiences Alzheimer´s differently, some common symptoms include memory loss, confusion, irritability and aggression.

A study reported in the Journal of Neurology showed common traffic violations caused by drivers with Alzheimer´s included swerving in lanes or hugging the centre line when another car approaches.

Although poor driving increases as dementia progresses, not all people with Alzheimer´s are dangerous drivers during the early stage of the disease. It´s estimated that people with Alzheimer´s will stop driving two and a half years after being diagnosed, owing to the progression to a moderate or severe stage.

Since Alzheimer´s affects people at different rates, an assessment of driving ability should be carried out every three to six months to determine the individual driver´s ability. The best idea is to gradually scale back the Alzheimer driver´s responsibility and reduce the distances driven, stick to familiar routes, avoid driving at night,in bad weather or on busy roads.

Being physically and mentally fit for driving

Being physically fit through regular exercise can improve concentration, stamina and reduce fatigue ´ all helping to improve your safety on the road. Research shows that a driver makes about 15 major decisions for every kilometre driven.

Although many older drivers are safe and conscientious, some may have reduced reaction time, coordination or flexibility, which may become unsafe on the roads. However, research from the Yale School of Medicine, has shown that driving ability of senior citizens was improved with regular physical exercise.

Summary

  • Having a physical or mental disability does not mean you should not drive.
  • Driving ability depends on the physical or mental disability but should be regularly assessed.
  • Regular eye care and hearing tests are essential to continually correct the disability or assess driving ability.
  • People with dementia should gradually reduce their driving responsibilities as the disease progresses.
  • Being physically fit, even as a senior citizen, can improve your driving ability.

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