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New Driving Technology for People with SCI

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The UW Department of Rehabilitation Medicine recently acquired a new full-size van for its Driving Rehabilitation Program that is equipped with adaptive technology advanced enough to enable people with C5 spinal cord injuries to drive. “This new van is really cutting-edge. It’s only the second one ever built,” said Frances Tromp van Holst, Occupational Therapist at the University of Washington Medical Center and coordinator of the Driving Rehabilitation Program. “Ours is the only program in the WAMIO (Washington, Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Oregon) region with this technology. It allows me to train people I hadn’t been able to serve before—clients with C5 or weak C6 injuries.”

A key component of the new van is the adapted steering wheel. It is about half the size of the regular steering wheel and can be placed anywhere in the vehicle. “Technically, you could drive this van from the back of the vehicle,” Tromp van Holst said. The wheel can go on either side of the driver and is not attached to the regular steering wheel. Different adaptive devices can be attached to this wheel to accommodate different grip capabilities. With a hand on the grip, the driver uses the shoulder to turn the wheel.

The gas/brake lever is operated by the hand other than the driving hand. Like the small wheel, this lever can be attached to either side of the regular steering wheel and only requires shoulder movement. Secondary controls (signals, lights, horn, etc.) are operated with a button that can be mounted anywhere and modified so it can be pushed by someone with a C5 injury.

The primary users of the new van are persons with SCI. Four people with C5 injuries began training on this vehicle in the first month, and several more are scheduled who have been waiting two or more years for this technology to be available. Evaluation can take up to eight hours, and training can take as many as 40 hours.

A personal van with this technology would cost $80,000-$100,000 (compared to $125,000 for the UW’s van, which has additional evaluator equipment). Tromp van Holst hopes to be able to bring this technology to clients throughout the Northwest by driving the van to selected locations and scheduling several clients over a two- or three-day period.

The new van replaces one that was retired after more than 13 years of service. It was purchased with the help of grants from the Ford Motor Company Fund, Seattle Foundation, Bridges Foundation and the Washington State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, as well as donations from several local vendors. The van was dedicated in April 2002, and several former Driving Rehabilitation Program clients attended the ceremony.

“We’ve needed this van for a very long time,” said Tromp van Holst. “It’s great timing to have the funding all come together now, because the newer equipment has only recently been developed. If we had gotten the van two years ago, its equipment would be outdated already.”

For more information about the UW Driving Rehabilitation Program, call 206-598-4830.

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