Nothing is better than the feeling of driving and the wind in your hair. You can't get more independent than driving your own vehicle. Luckily, a spinal cord injury won’t stop you from getting behind the wheel. The freedom of the road is waiting for you, all you need are hand controls. Well...you may need more than that, but hand controls are a good start.
Adapted driving opens up a new world full of cool gadgets. There's a lot of technology out there, but you're not going to need all of it. Your level of injury has a lot to do with what you'll end up with. How much can you move your arms? How much balance do you have? Can you move your fingers, or not at all?
Your answers to these questions will help guide you to the best vehicle and adaptations. If you're a quadriplegic with limited arm and finger movement and can't transfer on your own, you can still drive, but you'll do it from your wheelchair. Many vehicles can be modified for this, not just minivans (but don't knock them until you try them; their spaciousness can't be beat).
Otherwise, the PT Cruiser, Honda Element and many full-size trucks can be modified for driving from a wheelchair (and you can drive from a manual wheelchair or a powerchair. Your wheelchair locks into the floor). The Ford Explorer has also been recently modified for wheelchair driving, which is great for anyone wanting a beefier vehicle with style.
And if you can transfer, you can drive a good old-fashioned car. Some paraplegics have even figured out how to drive cars with shift-gears (sports cars), if that's your style. Many paraplegics opt for two-door cars, making transferring and getting a wheelchair in and out of the backseat (or in the seat next to them) easier. A lot of experimenting is required. Asking around online often helps.
You'll also have to go through a driver's assessment after your injury, which we know is a big drag (especially if you previously had your license) but a rehab specialist must determine if you can drive safely. Many rehab facilities offer drivers assessment programs. Check out nearby hospitals to see what's available. Many offer one-on-one classes with instructors to get clients accustomed to driving and to figure out which driving adaptations they'll need.
When it comes to hand controls, options abound. If you can't move your fingers, try tri-pin hand controls (definition: three metal prong controllers that can be easily held with a paralyzed hand). These hand controls are placed on the steering wheel and on the gas/brake.
Hand controls are placed wherever is most convenient (this can get pretty cool), but many have their gas/brake fused to a rod on the floor next to them, so it's easy to grab. There are also push buttons that control blinkers, horn, cruise control, wipers, etc.,for quadriplegic drivers. They can be pushed with the elbow, making turning things on and off while driving a breeze. Most quadriplegics use electric hand controls. While more expensive, they’re safer.
Paraplegics don't need as complicated of a set-up. Most require just a simple push-pull gas brake lever that's located under the steering wheel. This can even be swapped out and used in other vehicles, which is great for rental cars.
We also want to make a note about keeping your balance while driving if you have paralyzed torso muscles. Most quadriplegics will wear a chest strap (definition: a nylon strap attached to the wheelchair with Velcro that's strapped at the breast line to mimic balance),and this works very well. But this is also not enough for some. Side-supports (traditionally used for wheelchair seating) can be used to improve balance when driving (these are especially helpful when taking turns).
Driving is one of the best things you can still do after a spinal cord injury. The only problem is the expense. But funding options are available. . Please check out the resources below. In the meantime, please watch this video of a quadriplegic driving after a spinal cord injury, and don't forget to check out the Takeaway Points when you're finished!