Handy Controls

Recent advances in steering wheel hand control technology mean more options for drivers with disabilities.

When Marine Corps veteran Tim Vixay was discharged from spinal-cord injury (SCI) rehabilitation in 2008, learning to drive again wasn’t a high priority.

Faced with the life-changing challenges that come with being a C-5/6 quadriplegic, as well as the speed bumps that accompanied his transition back to civilian life, the Oregon native begrudgingly accepted that driving would have to wait.

It wasn’t a position he was comfortable adopting, but it didn’t last as long as he thought it might.

“When I first came home, I wasn’t driving, so getting out to do anything at all meant finding a driver and being a passenger,” Vixay says. “But after I hooked up with the Portland Pounders [wheelchair] rugby team and saw guys with my level of injury or higher transferring and driving themselves, I started looking into what it would take to become a driver again.”

First an Evaluation

Vixay connected with a driver’s rehabilitation specialist through the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Portland, Ore., and began the process of getting back behind the wheel.

Central to Vixay’s efforts was selecting the correct set of hand controls to fit his level of function and allow him to operate a vehicle safely.


The AEVIT 2.0 system from Electronic Mobility Controls is designed so devices such as a lever and small wheel, along with a touch screen, allow the driver to send commands to operate the vehicle, such as this Ford minivan (For more information, call 207-512-8009 or visit aevit.com).

“There is not one single mobility or hand control solution that fits a certain disability or injury,” says Drive-Master President Peter Ruprecht, one of New Jersey’s top wheelchair accessible van dealers. “When [wheelchair users] get to the mobility equipment dealer, they have a prescription, we build the vehicle and then make a series of fittings and adjustments before the driver accepts it.”

For wheelchair users, purchasing an accessible vehicle is really more of a custom fit. That makes getting things right the first time crucial.

“Having the opportunity to get in the vehicle and try it before you buy it, not to mention trying out and testing a wide range of hand controls, knobs, pins, cuffs and grips, can make all the difference in the world,” says Superior Van & Mobility’s Sam Cook, who is also president of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association’s (NMEDA) Board of Directors.

Mechanical Solutions

As Vixay worked through the evaluation process, he tested a host of different mechanical hand control options before receiving his initial prescription. According to Monarch Hand Control President Michael McGowen, Vixay’s experience was quite common.

“If they’re new drivers, they’ll typically go with what the evaluator recommends,” McGowen says. “The traditional right-angle systems are still the most prescribed although we’re now seeing other styles, like push-pull, push-rock or push-right angle prescribed based on what the evaluator finds.”

While mechanical hand control solutions have been on the market since the first days of accessible driving, the future is already becoming more complex with new positioning and combination mechanical and electric systems entering the market.

“Mechanical products are typically column-mounted and they require modifications to the lower dash, although we are now seeing floor-mounted systems entering the market from companies in Germany and Italy,” McGowen says. “In the future, also because vehicle manufacturers are going to electronic gas and braking, the mechanical products may soon change, too.”

The hand control system Vixay uses combines a mechanical brake arm with an electronic twist accelerator. He says the system allows for greater leg room and best fits his driving preferences.

Drive-by-Wire

Electronic drive-by-wire systems allow drivers with higher levels of disability to safely and reliably operate their vehicles.

These systems were originally modeled after the technology used in fighter jets to help pilots maintain control of their systems under the high G-force loads that often accompany aggressive air maneuvers. Their introduction to the adaptive vehicle industry more than 25 years ago has allowed thousands to regain their mobility independence.

“When you have a very limited range of motion and strength, you are usually subjected to needing these hi-tech controls because you find yourself unable to operate the vehicle’s primary and secondary systems with traditional mechanical control options,” says Electronic Mobility Controls Chief Operating Officer Ted McCarthy.

Unlike mechanical systems, drive-by-wire hand control equipment uses electronic devices that send information to servo motors that control the operation. The equipment is designed in such a way that a device such as a joystick or small wheel, along with touch screen or toggled control boxes, allow the driver to send commands to operate the vehicle.

To keep up with advances in everything, including the primary electronic steering, gas and braking and control of secondary systems that include ignition, wipers, directional, lights, mirrors and dimmers, McCarthy says drive-by-wire vendors must stay current with advances in vehicle technology.

“Now, almost every year, we go through a discovery process for almost all new makes and models so we can learn the interface between our equipment and the automobile’s factory system,” McCarthy says.

Changing Perceptions

That yearly “discovery process” is one of the reasons there are so many more accessible vehicle options today.

“Gone is the perception that all disabled drivers have to get behind the wheel of big, bulky vans with unreliable lifts and clunky equipment,” Cook says. “Today’s conversions and more custom hand controls now cover a wide variety of vehicles that include large SUVs, trucks, full-sized [vans] and minivans as well as coupes, luxury cars and even the newer hybrids.”

Now, with experience behind the wheel of a minivan, BMW 3 Series and a 2014 Chevy Silverado 1500 truck, Vixay is comfortable and confident about his driving. He has logged dozens of trips from his Oregon City, Ore., home to rugby destinations including Las Vegas, San Diego, Phoenix and Denver. Vixay says the feeling of being on the road helps him forget his paralysis and feel more a part of the general public.

“Driving was definitely one of the most life-changing things to happen to me after my injury,” Vixay says “It was a gateway to my independence.”

For more information, call 866-948-8341 or visit nmeda.com.

 

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