Driving after a stroke: The process to getting back on the road

Sharif with Driving Instructor in adaptive van

Stroke rehabilitation goes quickly for some people. For others, getting to outpatient therapy appointments can be a challenge. It can be difficult to accept that driving is unsafe — either temporarily or for the long term. Take plenty of time to rest and stay motivated throughout your rehabilitation journey. Depending on the severity of your stroke and its effects, you may eventually be able to drive again.

Our driving evaluation and training program for people with disabilities has helped other stroke patients get comfortable driving again. Keep reading to learn more about the steps you should take and how to know when it’s safe for you to drive.

Will I be able to drive after a stroke?

Each stroke is unique and causes different effects depending on where it is in the brain and its severity. Many people who have minor strokes or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) recover the abilities they need to drive within a couple of months. For moderate and severe strokes, it may depend on the lasting effects you have. 

You may have to wait up to a couple of years to regain enough of your abilities to drive safely. It’s worth waiting for medical clearance and having close friends or family members monitor your driving abilities for a few months. The most important thing is safety — for you, other drivers on the road and pedestrians. There are alternate methods of getting around for those who aren’t able to drive.

How will a stroke affect my driving abilities?

A stroke can affect movement, sensations, alertness, awareness, coordination and judgment. All of these are important for drivers, so you’ll need to have skills in each area in order to drive safely. But you don’t need to be 100% recovered to start driving. It may take some specialized occupational therapy and vehicle modifications to get you back on the road.

Some people start having seizures after a stroke. If this is the case, it may not be safe for you to drive. You should also know that having a stroke raises your chances of having another stroke. Your doctor will go over the warning signs to look for, if they haven’t already.

The following are problems that can indicate it’s not safe for a person to drive:

  • Driving faster or slower than the posted speed
  • Slow or poor decision-making
  • Getting lost in their own neighborhood
  • Getting frustrated, confused or distracted easily
  • Drifting across lanes
  • Having slow reaction time
  • Needing a lot of help or directions from passengers
  • Difficulty with the steering wheel or other controls 

How will I know when it’s safe for me to drive?

There are several steps you’ll need to take before you know it’s safe to drive again. You’ll need to get medical clearance from a doctor and complete any therapies or testing they recommend. You’ll also need to check your state’s laws regarding safe driving after a stroke. 

For your own peace of mind, you may want to test your vision, reaction time, judgment, cognitive abilities (thinking and problem-solving), and functional abilities. You can also drive with another person in the car, like a friend or family member, until you feel confident enough to drive alone. 

Here are the specific steps you should follow before driving:

  1. Complete physical and occupational therapy programs.
  2. Get a clinical evaluation and medical clearance to drive from a doctor. It can be hard to wait, but you need the time to rest and rehabilitate. Your doctor may also be able to prescribe special driving equipment.
  3. If needed, look into a certified driver rehabilitation program and testing center. These can be helpful resources for the remaining steps.
  4. Find out what your state’s laws are regarding driver safety after a stroke. Contact your State Department of Motor Vehicles and ask for the Office of Driver Safety. 
  5. Make any necessary modifications to your vehicle and get an inspection.
  6. Complete any therapies and driver’s training programs required.
  7. Drive with a friend or family member in familiar places until you feel comfortable.

What vehicle modifications can help people who have had a stroke drive?

Cognitive and sensory limitations are hard to replicate with technology. If your movement is affected, there are several pieces of equipment that may be helpful. These aren’t perfect replacements for strength, range of motion or fine motor skills. But they can make up for a bit of limited movement. One-handed spinner wheels and left-foot accelerators can help if one side of your body is functioning well enough to drive. You can also install a swivel seat to make getting in and out of the car easier.

How can I get around if I can’t drive?

Most states have alternative transportation assistance for people with disabilities. Some communities have low- or no-cost cab services. Or you may be able to get a free public transit pass. (Ability KC is on the route for the Kansas City streetcar Main Street Extension, which should be finished by 2025.) Ask your friends and family for help getting around when they’re available. If your destination is close enough, you could consider walking. And finally, you can pay for a taxi or ridesharing service. If driving is potentially unsafe, make sure you consider all your other options. 

Ability KC’s driving evaluation and training program can help you drive again after a stroke

We’ve helped individuals who are recovering from a stroke, like Sharif, drive again. We’ve simplified the process of finding training programs and testing so you don’t have to do it all on your own. Ability KC’s driving evaluation and training program is credentialed by the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists. Our trainers can help you adjust to driving and feel safe behind the wheel. 

Are you or a loved one recovering from a stroke? We’re here to talk about the process of getting back on the road. Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial evaluation.