Driving and Multiple Sclerosis: How to Stay Safe

Multiple sclerosis (MS) can make driving a challenge. It can affect the skills you need behind the wheel -- your vision, memory, reflexes, and how well you move your arms and legs. Your symptoms can come and go, sometimes in the same day. It might not be safe to drive during a flare-up, but it’s usually OK to get back in the driver’s seat after symptoms go away.

For most people with the disease, though, some planning and the right tools can make driving easier and safer.

Get Checked Out

Sometimes you’ll notice when your MS symptoms affect your driving, like you can’t move your foot from the gas pedal to the brake quickly. But other symptoms aren’t so obvious. Your brain may become less able to process what you’re seeing so you can react to it. You might have minor accidents like bumping into things when you park, or you might feel lost driving down familiar streets. Some people with MS aren’t aware that their driving has changed until a loved one points it out to them.

If you’re not sure whether MS is affecting you in the car, get checked out by a driver rehabilitation specialist. The evaluation will have two parts, one in an office and one behind the wheel.

The office test will review your health and driving history. The specialist will go over:

  • Your medical history
  • Your driving record
  • How MS affects things you do every day, like getting dressed or bathing
  • Your strength and coordination
  • Your vision
  • How fast your brain sorts information
  • Your memory

If things go well on the office test, then you’ll have a road test. This will see how well you:

  • Get into and out of the car
  • Store the gear you use to help you get around, like a cane or wheelchair
  • Follow driving rules
  • React to hazards on the road
  • Move your foot between the gas pedal and brake
  • Stay in your lane and change lanes safely

Afterward, the specialist can tell you how MS might be affecting your driving and tell you what you can do to make it easier and safer.

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Gear to Help You Go

Though you may have a few challenges as a driver, that doesn’t mean you won’t be allowed to do it at all, so don’t be afraid to get an evaluation. Many people just need special equipment for the car to help them drive better. It’s also a good idea to get checked before you buy a new car so you know what kind of vehicle or gear you might need ahead of time.

One of the most common car modifications is a way to control the gas and brake with your hands. But there are other options, such as:

  • Knobs or handles to help you steer
  • Wider or larger mirrors
  • Special seats to help you get in and out
  • Lifts for stowing your other gear
  • Ramps or lifts to accommodate a wheelchair

You’ll need some training to learn how to use this equipment, and you’ll have to take a road test after you learn.

More Tips

Whether or not you need special equipment to drive, knowing how MS affects you can help you plan out your trips. For example, if you know you get tired easily, keep your time in the car short. If MS changes your vision, avoid driving at night.

It might help to visualize your route before you go. Think about the roads you’ll take and the things you usually see like traffic lights, houses, bridges, or shopping centers. Think about where you’ll have to turn and what the streets look like. That can help you avoid getting confused or lost along the way.

Some people with MS find it hard to program a GPS system or listen to one announce directions. So try the old-school method: Write directions down before you get in the car. It can help you remember them and make it easier for you to check them in case you get lost and have to pull over.

A few other tips for safer driving include:

  • Avoid driving if you’re sick or run down. Other illnesses can make your MS symptoms worse.
  • Cut down on distractions. Turn off your phone and radio, and tell others in the car to keep conversation light or just enjoy the ride.
  • Try not to drive when you know there will be heavy traffic.
  • Avoid driving in bad weather.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on August 04, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence: “Driving and MS.”

Rosalind Kalb, PhD, vice president, healthcare information and resources, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, New York.

National Multiple Sclerosis Society: “Driving with Multiple Sclerosis: Managing Major Changes.”

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