A diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease can bring a number of questions and challenges that affect every area of your life, particularly your mobility and independence behind the wheel. However, this progressive movement disorder doesn’t mean that you need to stop driving immediately.
In this article, we’ll discuss Parkinson’s disease and how it can affect your driving ability. Then, we’ll touch on the common challenges of driving with Parkinson’s, how they can be overcome, and how you can work with a driving expert to confidently and safely extend your time behind the wheel.
What is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder where certain cells in the basal ganglia of the brain die off over time. These cells are responsible for communicating with the muscles to create movement, so as they deteriorate, your body slowly loses the ability to control its muscles.
While around 1 in 10 cases of Parkinson’s can be tied to genetics, the vast majority occur randomly (though researchers are studying some risk factors like exposure to pesticides), and tend to follow a similar progression.
In the first stage, people with Parkinson’s notice a mild tremor on one side of their body, or changes in facial expression, walking, or posture. In the second stage, these problems expand to affect the whole body, and worsen.
In the third stage, movement and balance becomes challenging, to the point where in stage four most people struggle to continue living independently. Finally, stage five often leads to confinement to a bed or wheelchair, loss of muscle function, and more severe cognitive symptoms like dementia.
Parkinson’s is a medical condition much more commonly found in older adults, and there is no known treatment to cure or slow the disease, though some symptoms can be managed with medication.
How Can Parkinson’s Disease Affect My Ability to Drive?
Parkinson’s disease involves the deterioration of certain parts of the brain and can lead to a variety of cognitive, physical, and visual deficits.
How Parkinson’s Affects a Driver’s Cognitive Abilities
As Parkinson’s progresses, some people will experience worsening cognitive symptoms, which can include being easily overwhelmed, finding it hard to focus, or suffering from memory problems.
Though these cognitive challenges can be mild at first, in the later stages they can lead to extreme stress, the inability to think clearly, depression, and dementia, which can drastically increase your risk on the road.
How Parkinson’s Affects a Driver’s Physical Abilities
There are two main areas in which Parkinson’s affects your ability to drive: control and comfort.
In the early stages of Parkinson’s, tremors in the hands or legs can be an obstacle to effectively controlling your car, and as these symptoms progress, your risk for delayed reactions, operator error, and collisions can significantly increase.
In addition, balance issues and maintaining a safe posture are both fundamental, if sometimes overlooked aspects of driving. If Parkinson’s affects your ability to sit comfortably in your vehicle for long periods of time, it can be challenging to stay alert and focused behind the wheel.
How Parkinson’s Affects a Driver’s Visual Abilities
It is fairly common for people with Parkinson’s to experience some challenges with their vision, which is the most important sense on the road.
Though these challenges can generally be compensated for easily in the early stages through corrective lenses, later-stage complications of Parkinson’s like extreme light sensitivity, loss of vision, and even mirages and hallucinations can make it impossible to drive safely.
What Can I Do to Improve My Ability to Drive with Parkinson’s?
Most of the research indicates that frequent exercise can help slow the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms, though again, there is no definitive cure or prevention for the disease.
These forms of exercise, like riding an exercise bike, stretching, walking, swimming, and more, can help your body stay fit and flexible, which extends your time comfortably driving for as long as possible.
Also, as with any health condition, adequate sleep and a healthy diet play a major role in your overall quality of life. Talk to your doctor about how you can improve your overall health as much as possible.
Who Determines If I Can Drive with Parkinson’s?
There are no laws in Connecticut that prohibit people with Parkinson’s from driving, but any concerned loved one, physician, or law-enforcement officer can submit an anonymous, protected form to suspend the license of anyone they feel is a risk on the road.
Before this process is needed, we recommend taking steps to work with friends, family, and the experts to come up with a plan to keep you confidently and safely driving as long as it’s within your abilities.
This is where a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS) comes in. These clinical driving and occupational therapy experts can help provide a likely timeline of symptoms, some warning signs to be aware of, and help you tailor a personalized plan for driving as long as it’s safe.
What Does Next Street Look for When Evaluating Drivers with Parkinson’s?
The main goal of our CDRS team is to help you understand and anticipate any problems you might have while driving, and help educate you on possible next steps.
The first step is to meet you in the comfort of your home for a physical, visual, and cognitive evaluation, which usually takes about two hours, so make sure to eat healthy and get a good night’s sleep!
Then, depending on your overall driving skills, they can prescribe a course of action, which might involve working with other driving rehab and driver education specialists, or a behind-the-wheel driving assessment at a later date.
Possible Driving Outcomes
There are four possible courses of action we may recommend after our visit.
Especially in the early stages of Parkinson’s, you may be perfectly healthy to resume driving as normal. Though we’ll recommend some helpful tips (like eliminating distractions and using a GPS, automatic transmission, or collision-avoidance systems), you’ll be confident to return to the road.
Still, due to the fact that Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, we’ll likely recommend regular check-ins.
Restricted Driving Privileges
In some situations, you may be comfortable driving during the day or around town, but might struggle with high-risk environments like freeway driving, night driving, or driving in heavy weather.
In these cases, we’ll recommend you stick to driving in the times where you’re most comfortable and confident.
Adaptive Driving Devices
In some cases, adaptive driving devices like hand controls, larger mirrors, or wheelchair modifications can help extend your time on the road.
Adaptive equipment and vehicle modifications can take time to learn to use and can also be expensive, but our CDRSs can help you determine if this is the right option for you.
Retirement From Driving
Because of the progressive nature of Parkinson’s, almost all people reach a point where it’s no longer safe for them to drive.
In this case, our experts can help you put a plan in place to keep you mobile and independent for as long as possible through the use of public transportation, specialty transit, ride services, or rides from family and friends.
Take The Next Step
Here at Next Street, our goal is to help you maintain as much freedom, mobility, and independence as possible while also remaining safe and comfortable.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and want to make sure you’re making the most informed decision about your driving future, you can reach out to us for a free consultation.