unclemikeLearning to drive, safely, is a serious matter for everyone. To maintain control of a rapidly moving vehicle in a flow of traffic takes finely-tuned motor skills and an extraordinary level of alertness, sometimes for hours at a time. Adding paralysis to that mixture increases the complexity of the situation. Fortunately, we are benefiting from the work of early driving pioneers and manufacturers wtho developed the tools and mechanisms to help drivers with paralysis maintain their “safe driver” status.

Without being able to control all of the functions of driving by hand, many of us would be unable to drive. Some of the first types of hand controls available over 50 years ago were fairly simple, with metal rods extending from the brake and throttle pedals to levers mounted near the steering wheel. Pushing, pulling or twisting a control lever in different ways controlled the speed of the vehicle and could bring it to a stop. That simplicity was a plus, as it minimized equipment breakdowns and helped those controls last for years.

Cody Unser prepares to take on her famous dad, race car driver Al Unser Jr., at her cousin’s indoor kart track.

Cody Unser prepares to take on her famous dad, race car driver Al Unser Jr., at her cousin’s indoor kart track. Photo courtesy of Cody Unser First Step Foundation

Those basic types of controls remain popular with drivers today. The MPS Monarch is one of several examples of such products. It allows a driver to apply the brakes while still pulling the hand control lever down toward the driver’s lap and applying the accelerator, which is helpful while stopped in traffic on a steep uphill grade, and even for driving some types of race cars. Marc Sagal, owner of Access Options in Watsonville, Calif., has been installing hand controls for 26 years and says the Monarch has remained a top seller even with so many other choices now available.

Knowledge about the types of hand controls and how they work is important for those beginning to drive. Cody Unser, founder of the Cody Unser First Step Foundation, was paralyzed by transverse myelitis at age 12. “In a matter of moments,” she says, “I found myself completely paralyzed below the waist with no apparent cause.” As a member of the well-known Unser racing family, she knew from an early age that she wanted to drive, so she has been using the same type of portable hand controls that were first installed by her brother when she was old enough to take driver’s education at age 15.

“It was confusing for us when I was first starting to drive, as it seems that there was a lack of guidance or information allowing us to make the best choice of which controls to use,” she says. She advises those searching for their first hand control system to check around and thoroughly investigate the options that are available. That recommendation was echoed by several others who were interviewed, and it should be part of a multi-step process prior to making that initial purchase.

Getting Started, Some Basics
First, an evaluation by an occupational therapist or other professional who has been certified for driving evaluation and instruction can determine physical capabilities and identify the type and location for preferred types of hand controls. Their training allows them to make recommendations that are based on the individual’s needs and the type of vehicle they would like to drive, as no two people are identical in that regard even if they have similar disabilities. If hand controls are going to be funded by some type of government agency, that evaluation will probably be required.

Typing “hand controls” into any Internet search engine will bring up an extensive list of websites that showcase over two dozen different types, brands or models of hand controls. There is even some overlap between manufacturers, as the same basic type of hand control might be available under different brand names. Mobility equipment dealers can provide information about the types of hand controls available, and if needed, they can also help with advice on how to obtain financing for purchasing them.

The hand controls for JR Harding’s van are quite complex.

The hand controls for JR Harding’s van are quite complex.

Mobility equipment dealers know how to mix and match the many different types of controls needed by any driver. Scott Poore, owner of Advanced Driving Systems, did that for JR Harding of Tallahassee, Fla. Harding has been paralyzed at the C5 level since 1983 and at the C6 level since 1988 due to two separate accidents that occurred 15 years apart. He has combined different types of systems that help him control his vehicle safely. His steering is assisted through Drivemaster reduced-effort steering, a tri-pin device to help him maintain a grip on the steering wheel with his left hand, and an extension to move the wheel closer to his body. Another tri-pin device mounted to his right helps him handle the acceleration and braking by pushing and pulling on the handle of a Mobility Products and Designs control. Auxiliary functions of driving are controlled through use of a Digipad or by touch controls mounted on his headrest.

That same professional advice can serve those who have been driving for years, but who are curious about how they might benefit from a switch to one of the newer hand control models. After using a MPS Monarch hand control for years, Allen Garrett, a C6-7 quad from Vero Beach, Fla., recently switched to one of the Sure Grip models. An amputee from Santa Cruz, Calif., Allen Carman, also made the same switch when he found it was more comfortable for him. Both men encourage other drivers to check periodically to see if a particular product, whether newly introduced or in common use for years, might work better for them.

Many drivers continue to use the type of hand controls they used when they first started driving. David Norley, a T4 para from Soap Lake, Wash., has been driving with hand controls for about 50 years. He started with a used set of Wells-Engberg controls donated by a friend after his 1964 auto accident and has remained loyal to that brand. The simple design initially allowed him to move the control himself whenever he changed to a new vehicle, and those he rented, during that half century. During the last few years he has let the professionals make those hand control swaps for him.

Nancy Starnes of Sparta, N.J., paralyzed from a spinal cord injury at the T12-L1 level, has used the push-pull type of controls for most of the time that she has been driving. She simply moves hers to each new vehicle when she purchases a car. While she is completely comfortable with that type of control, she has also been able to drive safely when using rental cars outfitted with different types of hand controls.

Types of Hand Controls
The number of types of hand controls available for drivers with any kind of disability has continued to grow, and some even allow vehicles with manual transmissions to be operated safely with hand controls. Patrick Cottini is the owner of an automobile repair shop in Chico, Calif., that specializes in repairing, restoring and selling classic cars, and repairing wheelchairs. Cottini, paralyzed at the C7 level at age 15, believes in keeping active. He bought a three-wheeled motorcycle equipped with a paddle shifter in 2008 and recently installed a similar device in a new BMW Sport Coupe that he compares to the feeling of driving a rally racecar. Not surprisingly, he believes that the use of paddle shifters is the wave of the future for people who drive with hand controls.

Steering modifications, when needed, often include the addition of a knob or similar device on the steering wheel to allow it to be operated with one hand. Other modifications might include adjustment of the position of the wheel to move it closer to the driver, a smaller steering wheel, or a counterweight mounted opposite any other devices attached to the wheel to make it easier to turn. For those with minimal strength, power-assisted steering can allow the wheel to be turned easily.

Aaron Dysart demonstrates his driving system.

Aaron Dysart demonstrates his driving system.

In fact, the inability to turn a steering wheel at all is no longer a factor that prevents driving. Electronic Mobility Controls and other manufacturers now offer systems that provide complete control of acceleration, braking, and steering through the use of a joystick similar to what is found on any power wheelchair. Aaron Dysart, of Redmond, Wash., has been driving since 1996, and he just purchased his second van. Quadriplegic at the C4-5 level, Dysart does not have sufficient strength to use mechanical types of hand controls or turn a steering wheel, but that doesn’t keep him from driving. Thanks to the Scott Driving System, his physical capabilities are maximized to allow him to drive safely. Both arms rest in a steering yoke that also operates the throttle and brakes with minimal effort, similar to the movement of a wheelchair joystick, while an adjacent touchpad gives him the ability to operate all auxiliary controls.

That concept has also migrated to the common passenger car, as steering wheels on modern vehicles may hold controls for turn signals, cruise control, headlight dimmer, cell phone, music, GPS and more. Some designs of hand controls are less obvious and provide greater clearance under the steering wheel. Kempf has been manufacturing digital accelerator rings that mount on top of the steering wheel for almost 60 years. The accelerator ring is very touch-sensitive, and drivers can learn to steer and accelerate without taking their hands off the steering wheel. Menox offers a control for acceleration and braking that is similar in appearance to the lever used to operate a boat and can be mounted anywhere that is convenient for the driver.

For a more comprehensive list of hand controls, see the resource list below.

Taking Driving to the Competitive Level
One of the benefits of hand controls that might have been unexpected by the initial developers was leveling the playing field when it comes to motor vehicle racing. Drivers who use hand controls have excelled in all types of motor sports, competing and winning against other drivers who are not disabled. Hand controls allow drivers, including many who are not disabled, to retain a firm grip on the steering wheel even if driving a vehicle that requires shifting of a manual transmission.

Even after she started driving, Unser knew that she wasn’t going to get into racing. She would leave that to others in the family, “as they were obviously very good at it.” While she has not driven race cars competitively, it has not stopped her from supporting those who want to go fast. Her foundation has recently arranged for five racing karts to be equipped with hand controls at an indoor kart racing track in Denver. The track advertises the availability of adaptive racing, and a transfer bench has been constructed to make it easier for people to slide into the driver seats from their wheelchairs. Those hand-controlled racing karts offer a great opportunity for drivers of all ages to try their hand at racing in a relatively risk-free environment.

Lance Magin drives a race car with his hand controls.

Lance Magin drives a race car with his hand controls.

Lance Magin, of Holtville, Calif., has become somewhat of an expert on the subject of hand controls used for racing through personal experience. The T4 para, injured in a 1974 motorcycle accident, has competed in a variety of types of races. One of his favorite controls has been the Monarch, as it allows him to synchronize acceleration and braking. That has been handy when he won his class in the Baja 500 desert races in 2005 and 2006. He still uses those controls while competing in a series of Sports Car Club of America autocross races, where he currently holds first place in his division.

Magin used a hand-operated lever to operate the clutch when he raced in the NASCAR Sportsmen’s division, and it was mounted on his hand control. Planning ahead, he is working on a deal for sponsorship of his next race car, which he plans to equip with Guidosimplex hand controls. That would allow him to operate a manual transmission by use of a “duck shifter.” Some of the Guidosimplex control’s optional features include the ability to operate the car’s functions through a variety of means, including a thumb accelerator, the duck shifter, buttons mounted on the steering control knob or a ring mounted on the front or back of the steering wheel. The Guidosimplex website points out that Albert Llovera, a World Rally Championship driver who is also paraplegic, has competed successfully while driving with their hand controls in rally races worldwide.

Hand controls are currently available to operate airplanes, construction machinery, boats, long haul trucks and all-terrain vehicles. It seems apparent that the future of hand controls will continue to evolve based on the needs, and restricted only by the imaginations, of those who use them.

•  Carospeed Menox, Auto Adapt; www.autoadapt.com/en/products/hand-controls/carospeed-menox/
•  Cody Unser First Step Foundation, 505/792-9551; www.cufsf.org
•  Scott Driving System and similar products, Driving Systems Inc., 818/782-6793; www.drivingsystems.com
•  Electronic Mobility Controls, 207/512-8009; www.emc-digi.com
•  Guidosimplex, 888-599-8267; www.guidosimplexusa.com
•  Kempf, 888/453-6738 or 408/773-0219; www.kempf-usa.com
•  Monarch, MPS Corp., 800/243-4051; mps-handcontrols.com
•  Mobility Products & Design, 800/488-7688; www.veigel-na.com/de/main-veigel-north-america
•  National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, 866/948-8341; www.nmeda.com
•  Sure Grip, 506/363-5289 or 888/370-5050; www.suregrip-hvl.com
•  Unser Karting and Events, 720/282-5000; unserracing.com
•  Wells-Engberg, 877/864-8267; www.performancemobility.com/driving-aids/hand-controls/wells-engberg-hand-controls.php