By Michael Rock
In the United States, there are few skills as commonly associated with independence and autonomy as the ability to drive a car. Unfortunately, numerous structural obstacles, such as impairments in learning and decision-making as well as the prevalence of vehicles that are not accessible to drivers with physical disabilities, can make learning to drive a greater challenge to this crucial demographic.
There is evidence that drivers with autism, despite their challenges, can be better drivers than their neurotypical counterparts. According to a 2012 study, teenage drivers with autism actually are less likely to get ticketed or into crashes than teenage drivers without autism. Despite this statistic, it may take more time for drivers on the spectrum to earn their licenses. Specialized driving instruction can benefit them greatly, as can lessons from parents.
Recognizing this reality, the Arc of Kentucky offers specialized drivers’ education courses for people with various developmental disabilities in Lexington. Unlike most such courses that are designed for prospective drivers without disabilities, this course emphasizes the smaller split-second decisions that all drivers must make in unexpected situations as well as the basic mechanics of driving.
For prospective drivers with mobility difficulties, the situation is more challenging. In October 2018, the Department of Transportation released its Autonomous Vehicles 3.0 Guidance, which indicated that the way cars are designed is the primary obstacle to accessible transportation. However, no major automobile producer has marketed an accessible vehicle on a large scale.
As a workaround, many drivers with mobility issues may modify their cars with adaptive technologies, such as hand controls and swivel seats. Still, a vehicle modified for accessibility may be very expensive, costing in the range of $20,000 and $80,000.
Recognizing these issues, the European Union has begun development of Joysteer 3.0, which uses a small input that allows drivers with physical disabilities to drive, shift gears, brake, and adjust other functions such as windshield wipers and lights with minimal effort.
Meanwhile, numerous additional technologies have been tested and developed to better accommodate drivers with disabilities. These include Microsoft’s, “Seeing A.I.” which describes the world so that blind drivers can “see”. At the same time, Texas A&M University has begun testing of autonomous shuttles in which users can indicate to the dispatchers their communications preferences and disability needs so that an appropriate vehicle will come for them.
At the same time, Dakota County, Minnesota, has partnered with Lyft to more effectively transport people with disabilities.
With contemporary developments, drivers with disabilities need not be discouraged. Despite losing his legs in a crash in 2001, racecar driver Alex Zanardi has managed to use adaptive technologies to return to racing without prosthetics at this year’s Rolex 24 endurance race at Daytona.
As awareness of the challenges drivers and prospective drivers with disabilities face increases, there will surely be new innovation in driver’s education and transportation technologies and services to accommodate them as well.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.