Driving evaluations: A helpful tool for getting drivers their independence back after a stroke

For 87% of Americans over the age of 16, driving a vehicle is a big part of their independence and freedom. What happens if you have a stroke and your ability to drive is suddenly affected? There is hope: There are tools available to help you safely get back behind the wheel, and undergoing a driving evaluation is a crucial part. Strokes are a leading cause of disability in the United States and around the world. Approximately 700,000 Americans are affected by strokes each year. After a stroke, many people may worry if they’ll ever get to drive again. Regulations on driving after a stroke can vary from state to state, but drivers don’t automatically lose their license.

Strokes can affect different parts of the brain. Depending on the location and severity of the stroke, it may impact your ability to safely drive. Driving is a very complex skill. Think about all the things you do when you’re driving:

  • Vision — You need to see clearly in all directions and be able to see traffic lights. You also need to be able to accurately judge distances. A stroke can cause blurry vision, blind spots or difficulty focusing quickly.
  • Physical abilities — Being able to turn the steering wheel smoothly, press the pedals with good control and move around comfortably in your seat are all important. A stroke can cause weakness, numbness or a limited range of motion in your limbs.
  • Cognitive skills — Driving requires good judgment, quick thinking and the ability to focus on multiple things at once. You have to make decisions about lane changes, follow traffic rules and react to unexpected situations. A stroke can affect your memory, attention span and your ability to quickly process information.

Approximately 33% of drivers who had a stroke will be able to drive again with little or no retraining. For those who do need rehabilitation before they can safely resume driving, there is hope.

Driving rehabilitation: Getting back on the road

The good news is that even if your driving skills are affected by a stroke, there are ways to help you get back behind the wheel. Approximately 35% of people recovering from strokes will need driver rehabilitation before they can safely start driving again. Driver rehabilitation programs offered by occupational therapists or driving specialists can help you regain confidence and improve specific skills you may be struggling with. These programs can include:

  • In-car training — Your specialist will guide you through driving exercises in a safe environment. These exercises may include driving at different speeds, driving in different environments, driving under different light conditions, demonstrating parking skills and driving in heavy pedestrian areas. This can help you practice maneuvers and build your confidence.
  • Adaptive driving equipmentSpecial equipment like hand controls, pedal extensions or spinner knobs can be installed in your vehicle to help make it easier for you to drive safely. Once this equipment is installed in your car, you may need additional training to properly use the vehicle.
  • Vehicle modifications — Depending on your needs, additional modifications like lowered seats or larger mirrors can be made to your car to improve accessibility and control.

Other therapies that can help address abilities needed to drive again after a stroke include:

  • Vision therapy — Eye exercises can help restore visual clarity, perception and scanning skills.
  • Cognitive exercises — Cognitive exercises like memory games and puzzles can engage neuroplasticity and improve the mental abilities needed to drive.
  • Foot drop exercises — Foot drop can have a significant impact on your driving skills. Foot drop exercises can help you overcome this issue and enable you to use your gas and brake pedals effectively again. 

What is a driver evaluation after a stroke?

A driver evaluation is a comprehensive assessment conducted by a certified occupational therapist or driver rehabilitation specialist. It’s designed to see if you can safely operate a vehicle after a stroke. The evaluation can involve:

  • Medical review — Your healthcare provider will review your medical history and current condition to determine if there are any medical reasons why driving may not be safe.
  • Vision test — A vision test will assess your visual acuity, color vision and ability to scan your surroundings. 
  • Physical abilities test — A physical abilities assessment will evaluate your strength, coordination, range of motion and overall physical fitness for driving. 
  • Cognitive skills test — A cognitive skills test may involve computer simulations or written tests. These are designed to help assess your reaction time, memory, attention and decision-making skills.
  • On-road driving test — This is the most important test of your driver evaluation. A specialist will watch you while driving in a controlled environment. This test measures how you handle real-life situations.

After your evaluation, the specialist can determine if you are safe to return to driving, cannot drive at all or may drive with additional interventions. If you are cleared to return to driving, it’s important to understand the warning signs of a stroke so you can be aware of them in case they should happen again. This can help you get off the road and seek immediate medical help.

The road to independence starts with driver rehabilitation and evaluation with Ability KC

A driving evaluation is a valuable tool to help determine if driving is safe for you after your stroke. It can also determine what steps you need to take to get there. At Ability KC, we have a 75-plus-year history of empowering individuals with disabilities to change and shape their lives for the better. We serve over 3,000 people and their families each year and offer a wealth of support and resources like driver evaluations and rehabilitation after experiencing a stroke. With the right support, dedication and knowledge gained from a driving evaluation, you can take your first step toward reclaiming your independence.

Ability KC is a designated Comprehensive Outpatient Rehabilitation Facility (CORF) with a Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) accreditation. Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial evaluation.