I wish I’d done this ages ago!

I recently got my driving licence back. I’m authorised to drive “CA” (only automatic cars, not manual anymore) and restricted to “MV” (modified vehicle – hand controls). Both of these things work in my favour though. I’ll be able to continue driving for many more years now, and my confidence in my own safety to drive is higher.

The QLD government (through VOSS – there’s a similar programme in every state) paid not only for the modifications, they also paid the OT time for my initial assessment and they funded five hours of lessons so I’d become familiar with the controls. In fact, as I was buying a car to have the hand controls put in, they chipped in additional funds toward the purchase price. Apart from my very first lesson ($90), plus needing to fund some additional lessons (which I’ll tell you more about below), the only cost to me was $15 on my car insurance because the hand controls increased its value.

I’m very glad I went through the process and write now to share some of the key learnings from the experience.

The most heartening was attitude. From government to OT to driving instructor, their objective is to keep you driving, but to find the way that’ll ensure you’re as safe as possible doing it: to yourself, your passengers and everyone else on the road. I doubt I was unique in expecting something else. I was apprehensive; I thought that they’d be sneakily looking for ways to ban me from driving. But the reality is quite different. If you’re “confined to barracks”, you’re expensive to government. Their objective – and this applies across the board, not just to driving – is to find the best way for you to participate in your community. The more you participate, interact socially etc ., the healthier you’ll be and the less you’ll cost to government. In that vein then, if you can be a safe driver, they want you to have that independence.

And having used hand controls for some time now, I know I’m a safer driver. There are quite a few different systems available and they’re amazing. They all do really make driving easier (and therefore make you a more relaxed and therefore a safer driver).

Another thing I learned is that I should have started all this much earlier. The process isn’t hard but it does take a very long time. In my case, more than nine months from start to finish. So if you have FA (or any other progressive condition which will mean that you’ll eventually move to hand controls) start the process sooner rather than later. There are three reasons for this recommendation: 1. If you’re in an accident and the insurance company determines that you should have had a modified car, they’ll put some of the blame on you, 2. If you’re going through the process and someone determines that it wouldn’t be safe for you to drive until you have modifications done, they’ll take away your licence until then and most importantly 3. Once you’ve had the modifications done, driving will be easier than ever.

If you have FA and want to drive, you will probably need to move to hand controls at some stage. FA causes peripheral neuropathy – loss of sensation in the nerves, starting in the feet. So eventually you won’t have accurate sensory feedback from the pedals. Also FA affects proprioception – the sense of where your limbs are in space. (It’s a major contributor to our poor balance and why darkness is our worst enemy). Eventually you won’t be sure you’ll hit the right pedal. (Do you ever use the side of your foot to guide it to the correct pedal? You shouldn’t need to do that.)

So here’s the process, as it happened from start to finish:

If you have a medical condition of any kind that could affect your driving, you need to carry a medical certificate with your licence. There’s a form you need to fill and take to your GP (click here) and another they’ll use to assess your suitability or safety to drive (click here), In QLD, it’s up to your GP, based on these two forms, to determine if you’re safe to drive or not. That’s a huge responsibility and it’s likely your GP will ask for at least one other opinion. My GP wanted the opinion of a neurologist as he didn’t know how fast FA might progress, and he also wanted an assessment from an OT. There are a number of them who specialise in driving. For anyone in or around Brisbane, I recommend Kerryn van Wyk (Ability Driving – 07 3808-4939). She’s in Springwood.

If your OT determines that it’s worth considering hand controls, then they’ll make doing your assessment part of the meeting and their time will be charged to VOSS. As part of that meeting, they’ll ask if you know what kind of controls will work best for you. There are lots of systems so your answer will probably be “No”. So they’ll arrange a first try-out lesson with a system that they expect you might be comfortable with. In my case, as the VOSS application was only being done at that time, I needed to pay for that lesson.

(To give you an idea of the range of options and systems available check out this and this And there are more than just these if you do more research).

Then it all goes quiet as your OT submits the application and it trundles its way through the government systems until one day “bing!” it’s (I hope) approved! Now, approval means also approval to five hours of lessons. If you don’t know what system you’ll want (I didn’t), be careful here.

I went for a lesson with Michael Maynard of All Up 2-Speed. He has a car with several systems installed so you can try them all out (their website). That’s great and I recommend it highly, but after that you might want to get a different instructor for the rest of your hours of instruction. I was recommended to call him as I wanted the “push-pull” system, and for my first lesson I used that and it was good. In my second lesson though, he recommended I try the Satellite system (Satellite). I tried it and loved it. (It would cost way more than what VOSS would pay but I loved it so much I was prepared to pay the difference myself). He used three hours of lessons encouraging me drive with it and then used another hour to demonstrate to my OT that I’d be better with the “push-pull” system which I’d wanted in the first place.

Now Michael has many years of disabled driving instruction. I feel that he should have been able to see earlier that the system he recommended wasn’t best for me and changed his recommendation.

In any case, I had a “push-pull” system installed (excellent job at a very reasonable cost by Mike Nugent at Surgical Engineering (07 3869-1919 website) and needed to pay for lessons to be comfortable with that. (excellent instructor this time – Ivor Booker 07 3281-5331 website)

When your instructor’s satisfied that you’re driving safely with the hand controls, he’ll tell you, and write a letter saying so to your OT. Your OT will write to your GP and your GP will sign your form.

You bring that form to your local TMR office and it’s done. (They’ll give you a piece of paper to be your licence while, at glacial speed, your new licence is made and sent to you).

I almost forgot – call your insurance company and add the value of your hand-control system to the value of your car. The cost on your insurance will be tiny but you’ll be glad you covered it if ever you need to claim for it. And there’s no reason why your insurance cost should increase otherwise. A driving instructor, your OT, your GP and TMR all say you’re a totally safe driver and have given you a licence to prove it. (Incidentally, I’ve heard it said that disabled drivers are involved in a lower-than-representative proportion of accidents).

As I said above, not difficult but definitely time-consuming. Start soon!

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