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Brush Up on Driving Skills After Illness, Disability, or Feeling Rusty

Professional driving schools and occupational therapists can help you relearn skills while keeping you and others safe on the road


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When doctors had to amputate Doug Bergren’s leg halfway down his shin, he had to depend on family and friends for transportation. “I didn’t realize how much I took driving for granted; it felt like a basic freedom was stripped away from me,” recalls Bergren, 51. 

But after Bergren was fitted for a prosthetic leg in August 2022 and his car was equipped with a left foot accelerator, he had everything he needed to drive again — except the skills. 

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“Using my left foot for the brake and the gas — which is now to the left of the brake pedal — didn’t come naturally,” he recalls. “Even driving around an empty parking lot was kind of scary. I didn’t brake soon enough, or I’d brake too hard.” 

After three sessions with Terri Cassidy, an occupational therapist, certified driver rehabilitation specialist and owner of Health Promotion Partners in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Bergren was able to drive with confidence. “It feels wonderful to have that skill or the means of getting around by myself,” he says. “It felt like something that was natural was restored to me.”

Whether you have new mobility issues, cognitive changes or another medical condition, working with an occupational therapist who specializes in driver rehabilitation can be an important first step in getting back on the road safely.

Training sessions not only assess if you’re road-ready, but also help you get the skills you need to drive safely. Here’s what you need to know.

How many sessions you need depends on your specific situation 

Depending on the type of disability a driver has, the number of sessions they need before they can resume driving alone varies. 

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Some clients need just one or two refresher lessons, while others, especially if they have to learn how to operate adaptive equipment such as hand controls, might need up to 10, says Susan Touchinsky, an occupational therapist and certified driver rehabilitation specialist with Adaptive Mobility Services in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania.

Your ability to manage in everyday life (not just on the road) matters

Whether someone’s had a stroke, a heart attack or a head injury, Touchinsky wants to know what other high-level daily tasks they’ve gone back to: Are they working again? Do they have the energy to go to the grocery store or the concentration to play a board game?

“Driving is the hardest thing we do; it takes our vision, our arms, our legs and our thinking. It’s one of the last things we tend to do in recovery, because we want to be as good as we can be when we come back to it,” says Touchinsky. 

Often, a driver rehabilitation specialist will consult with other members of your care team, including physicians and physical therapists, before seeing you. 

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The specific skills you need to drive will be evaluated

Whether it’s a medical return to driving or teaching you how to use adaptive equipment, you can also expect a thorough clinical assessment.

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“We don’t just jump in the car — the first half of the assessment is in the clinic,” says Cassidy. 

Making sure you can move well. “We think driving’s easy, but we’re moving our arms and our legs at the same time and holding a steering wheel, so I’ll look at how people are walking, how they’re rising from a chair and sitting back down,” says Touchinsky. 

To judge how quickly someone can move from the gas to the brake pedal, Touchinsky uses a reaction timer. She asks drivers to put their foot on the gas pedal and move to the brake when a light turns red, and she measures their reaction times.  

Checking your vision. This includes a vision test to check depth perception, peripheral vision and spatial skills.

Ensuring your cognitive ability is up to speed. Your memory and other cognitive functions will also be evaluated. 

“We’re trying to figure out where are they with their judgment, their attention and their capacity to hold on to information while they’re working through something,” explains Touchinsky.  

“It takes a lot of focus when you’re driving, and we take that for granted when things are going well.” 

You’ll have a copilot at first

When you first get back behind a wheel, you’ll drive the instructor’s car, which has a safety brake on the passenger side. 

Touchinsky prefers meeting her clients at their home so they can cruise through a familiar neighborhood during the sessions. 

She says having home court advantage gives them confidence as they’re getting back into driving. She’ll often start by having them drive to the bank, to church or to the grocery story before going on the highway.

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Instructors will be checking to assess your quick-thinking skills and reaction time. 

Cassidy evaluates her clients’ decision-making process when they’re at a complex intersection, while they’re following directions and when they’re pulling into a gas station. 

“We check thinking on the fly and fatigue over time, and we’ll also drive through a variety of environments to get an idea of where that person is related to the deficits we saw in the clinic,” she says. 

You’ll get an overall assessment before getting back on the road

Once the clinical and on-road assessments are complete, your instructor will discuss how the two parts match up, says Cassidy.  

“Some people who didn’t test well on paper drove really well, so we’ll discuss being able to compensate for some of these deficits, but watch them over time,” she says.  

Above all, adds Touchinsky, instructors want to make sure you’re comfortable and confident. “We want people to be as independent as possible, but we must balance that with safety,” she says.

The cost of driving evaluations and lessons varies, but it’s generally in the $200 to $500 range for an evaluation and $100 to $300 for driving sessions.

These services are not usually covered by insurance, but your insurance company may offer a discount.

It can also depend on your situation. Assessments and lessons for older adults who just want to evaluate their skills are different than if you are relearning how to drive with a new disability. It is also worth noting that some private insurance policies might cover the cost.  

Bottom line: It is worth a call to your insurance provider to ask.

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