Can I Drive Yet?

One of the most common questions a patient will ask the Transitional Learning Center staff is when that patient will be able to resume driving.  This is an understandable concern as most Americans use their cars as their primary means of travel.  Additionally, a car is often viewed as a symbol of freedom and independence and not being able to drive is often felt as an acute personal loss.

Of all the activities of daily living, driving is one of the most complex and as such is uniquely susceptible to being effected adversely by deficits left in the wake of a brain injury.  Driving requires such skills as good vision to be able to adequately see traffic and other surroundings, solid motor coordination to operate the vehicle safely, strong attention skills to enable sufficient observation and anticipation of traffic and excellent reasoning skills to make safe decisions.  It requires strong memory skills in order to recall new directions as given and strong processing skills to analyze all of the various forms of information the driver receives in the course of a trip.

If all this were not difficult enough, driving requires all of these activities to be done while travelling at incredibly high rates of speed.  For instance, 60 miles per hour (a pretty typical speed limit for highways) is the equivalent of 88 feet per second!  Brain injury deficits are typically magnified by the speed with which a person is trying to do a given task, so the chance of making an error when driving is much greater than the chance of error while walking.  Moreover, making a mistake in a vehicle can be a much bigger problem because a  vehicle can weigh from between around 3000 pounds for a small compact car  to the neighborhood of 12,000 pounds for a larger truck.  If you are driving a midsize sedan at the highway speed limit, you are driving a vehicle weighing approximately 5500 pounds at 88 feet per second.  Any accident may be a major accident.

One of the statements we often hear from patients when discussing driving is, “But I haven’t forgotten how to drive.”  This may well be the case.  Unfortunately, this fact does little to lessen the gravity of the central issue at question.  Remembering or not remembering how to drive is not the problem.  Most patients in the post-acute stage of traumatic brain injury retain their pre-injury memories for how to engage in a number of activities, particularly those activities which have been done repeatedly like driving.   The issue is not whether or not a patient remembers how to drive, but to what extent that patient can safely drive today in spite of any deficits that may have been incurred due to his or her injury.

It is recommended that any person who has suffered a serious brain injury be evaluated by a driving rehabilitation professional prior to resuming driving.  Some brain injury survivors are able to return to driving but many cannot.  A professional evaluation will assess a patient’s driving skills to ensure both the safety of the survivor and of the public.  They also can and do recommend devices that may compensate for deficits.

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: tlcrehab.org

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