Should a friend or family member still be driving? It’s a tough question. You might even need to ask it of yourself one day.  After all, the ability to drive is a major component of personal independence. In the US, you can hardly get to the mailbox, much less visit friends and family without jumping in the car and tooling on down the road. Understandably, many people cling to their driver’s licenses well beyond the point of safety.

Occupational therapists, whose goal it is to evaluate and improve function in the activities of daily living — driving included — are well positioned to bring clarity to this stressful decision. OT’s regularly treat individuals whose ability to drive may have been impaired by traumatic injury or by a chronic physical condition such as arthritis. Driving ability can also be affected by neurological disorders or age-related impairments. Either way, an OT may be able to help.

Occupational therapy professionals with specialized training in driver rehabilitation, such as CDRS (Certified Driving Rehabilitation Specialists), are frequently asked to administer driving evaluations. The assessment usually includes two parts: one part in a clinic or rehab center, and the second part behind the wheel of a car. The purpose of the evaluation in the clinic is to examine the physical, visual, and mental abilities required for safe driving. Primarily:

  • Reaction time, needed for crash avoidance
  • Basic visual acuity
  • Decision making, judgment, and planning (merging, making left turns, etc.)

How does a patient get referred to occupational therapy for driving?

Patients may undergo a driver evaluation for a number of reasons. One of the most promising situations is when patients take a proactive approach themselves, and seek occupational therapy for help with driving before outside intervention takes place.

On occasion, a decline in vision, hearing, physical strength, or reaction time may be noted during a regular physical exam. After consulting with the patient and family members, the physician may recommend occupational therapy as an alternative to giving up the keys to the car.

Similarly, rehabilitation therapists who have been providing treatment for more general conditions may focus on specific task functionality as the patient’s therapy progresses. Once basic mobility is established, it is time to assess whether or not the patient is capable of more complex tasks, such as driving.

After a few too many “near-misses”, family members may refer a loved one to an OT for a driving evaluation. (It’s a delicate situation; here’s a few tips from the AOTA on how to approach the conversation »)

A state drivers licensing authority may require a medical assessment of the patient’s driving ability, as a legal prerequisite to retaining a license. Driving records, physician reports, or the individual’s demeanor during an in-person renewal may trigger such a requirement.

What can an occupational therapist do to improve a patient’s driving skills?

Occupational therapists who provide treatment for drivers have a variety of options.

  • They may provide physical and cognitive rehabilitation to sharpen motor skills and improve mental awareness.
  • They may suggest adaptive equipment for vehicles based on the patient’s impairment.
  • And, if driving is no longer a safe option, OT’s can help patients feel comfortable with alternative transportation such as buses, van pools, and taxi cabs.

Seniors are certainly not the only group who turn to occupational therapy to improve driving skills. Still, with the population of aging drivers growing each year, along with an increased reliance on occupational therapy as effective medical treatment, this specialty area in occupational therapy is positioned to become highly sought-after in the coming years. For those just starting to think about a career in occupational therapy, here’s a starting point for browsing academic programs »

A rewarding occupational therapy career, that can include OT jobs like these, can also mean helping patients realize that they can still be active and mobile, even without a car.