In September, SMMC welcomed director, Kristin Nichols, who is an Occupational Therapist and Driving Rehabilitation Specialist.
Nichols’ clients include those who have physical, visual or cognitive impairments such as strokes, traumatic brain injuries, visual disturbances, amputations to lower extremities, diabetic neuropathy, dementia and Alzheimer’s. Participants in the program can self-refer, but are oftentimes referred from rehabilitation clinics, physical therapists, physicians and family members.
The program consists of a two-part evaluation with both clinical and behind the wheel assessments lasting a total of three hours. The clinical assessment evaluates strength, range-of-motion, motor skills, cognition and memory. Because driving relies heavily on vision, there is also extensive testing in visual perception, visual reaction time, attention, depth perception, peripheral vision and acuity. Based on the results of the clinical examination, Nichols will determine if it is safe to proceed with a behind the wheel assessment.
“Most of our clients are able to proceed on to the driving portion of the assessment,” Nichols said. “They accept feedback best when it is based on functional performance and observation.”
Nichols and the client begin in an empty parking lot, and based on the client’s skill and comfort levels throughout the evaluation, they will then move on to driving in residential and commercial areas, then freeways and highways.
Thanks to The Foundation for SMMC, the Driving Rehabilitation and Training Program has its own vehicle that is specially equipped with various modifications including an instructor’s brake for safety.
Based on the client’s performance on the road, Nichols will make one of four recommendations: independent driving, further driving instruction with or without adaptive equipment, driving with restrictions, such as avoiding highway travel or nighttime driving, or retirement from driving.
There are many types of vehicle modifications available to help prolong the driver’s independence. Some examples are steering devices, left foot accelerator pedals, multiple mirrors to increase visibility and four different types of hand controls. Once the client has successfully proven he or she is able to operate the vehicle safely, show independence behind the wheel, follow the rules of the road and, if necessary, acquire the proper modifications, they are then able to resume independent driving.
If a client has a progressive illness, Nichols may suggest the client visit their physician every six months for review, or advise a family member to drive with the client once a month to ensure his or her skill level has not deteriorated since the driving evaluation.
“The goal is for [the clients] to remain driving as long and as independently as possible,” Nichols said. “But our priority is their safety and the safety of the community.”
Because safety is the number one concern, Nichols must sometimes deliver the bad news that a client’s driving must be restricted.
“Even though it is hard for them to hear, I think it helps when they understand that the decision is not just about them, but also the safety of all drivers on the road,” Nichols explained.
Even though her job can be challenging at times, Nichols said she loves what she does.
“I love the fact that it is functional and I can use the community as the modality for treatment,” Nichols said. “And it is nice to assist in keeping the roads safer.”
For further information about SMMC’s Driving Rehabilitation and Training Program, or to initiate a referral, call 913-676-7655.