With the lack of accessible public transport in South Africa, being able to drive is an important part of being independent. Rolling Inspiration explored this topic in 2004 and has had so many enquiries since then, that we decided to re-visit it and find out what is new and what is still available. It is exciting to see how many companies and new products there are that enable people with disabilities to be independent and safe behind the steering wheel.
When choosing a hand or foot control, the first aspect to look at, is what the individual is capable of doing, and therefore what needs to be changed on the vehicle.
Next is whether they are going to drive an automatic or manual car. An automatic is by far the preferred and safer option for people with disabilities as it has fewer controls to operate. However, automatic cars are generally more expensive, and some people already have a manual car and may not want to sell it. Many people want to drive a “bakkie” which only comes in a manual option.
The next decision is whether the control should be fitted to the left or the right of the steering wheel. If the driver has used hand controls before they will probably want the control on the same side. However, the majority of hand controls are fitted on the right, as most people are right-side dominant. But this may limit room for transferring into and out of the vehicle.
Another factor to consider is the size of the car versus the size of the driver. How much space is available between the legs and the hand control? It is important that the legs do not obstruct the movement of the hand control.
Preferably, a hand or foot control should be adaptable so that an able-bodied driver can still drive the vehicle, such as when the vehicle needs to be serviced.
Driving from the wheelchair is a relatively new concept in South Africa, and at present is still only an option in the larger vehicles like the Vito and VW Kombi. However, experiments to lower the floor on small panel vans like the Renault Kangoo and Peugeot Partner are underway by Easy Drive Western Cape. So, driving from the wheelchair in these vehicles will hopefully be an option too. Therefore, people who are unable to transfer themselves could still drive.
Always remember that safety is the number one factor – both for the driver and for other road users.
Hand Control Systems
Push-pull hand control
This is the most common system, comprising a lever mounted just below and beside the steering wheel. The lever is pushed forwards for braking and gently pulled for acceleration. All the suppliers listed offer a version of the push-pull system.
Louis Nortje, who has been in a wheelchair for over 30 years, designed the Easy Rider clip-on hand control. It can quickly and easily be fitted and removed to either the left or right side, although it is preferable on the left. A support strap on the steering column provides height adjustment. The length can be adjusted to suit the driver. The system was tested at Gerotek and found to be safe, reliable and user-friendly. It is affordable at R3 500.00.
This unit, also known as the Kiota, was designed by Jamie Vilela, a paraplegic racing driver. It has a joystick attached close to the steering wheel with a lever working the brake and a cable working the accelerator. The joystick is positioned close enough to the steering wheel for both to be held in one hand and can be fitted on either side. It is very neatly finished off to match the interior of the car and Mercedes and BMW endorse it. It is smooth and sensitive to use, with no exposed levers to hamper transferring.
Wide Range Equipment imports the Menox hand control from Finland. This push-pull hand control is fitted to the left of the steering wheel, next to the console. Each Menox handle has a brake latch to hold the brake pedal down, and thus can function as a hand brake. A multi-function grip is available to allow the driver to operate the headlights, indicators, wipers or hooter without taking a hand off the control. A multi-function steering wheel spinner is also available. This system is ideal for larger drivers as well as “drive from a wheelchair” adaptations as it does not restrict space under the steering wheel.
Radial Hand Controls
The Chairman Radial hand control system has a lever position similar to a push-pull, and uses the push action to brake. But to accelerate, the lever must be pulled down towards the lap. The system can be set up to require less force than the push-pull system. Obviously the brake and accelerator should not be applied at the same time, although this can be useful on a steep hill start. Chairman Industries have supplied the radial system for over 20 years, and recently developed a push-pull system.
Steeing Wheel Ring
The Guidosimplex steering wheel systems use the same braking technique with a lever next to the steering wheel. But for acceleration, a small, raised ring is fitted to the steering wheel. As the ring is pushed, the car will accelerate without removing the hands from the steering wheel. There are some variations available and it can be fitted to manual and automatic vehicles. The Guidosimplex range is supplied by Easy Drive Pretoria and Easy Drive Western Cape. (see photo on page 26.)
A number of different clutch operating systems have been designed to allow people to activate it using their hands. The Guidosimplex system converts a manual gear change to semi-automatic. It operates with an infrared sensor on the gear lever that automatically depresses the clutch when the hand is placed on the gear lever.
Independent Drive Systems attach a lever similar to a motorcycle brake lever to the gear shift. Squeezing it activates the clutch to enable a gear change.
Chairman Industries fit a lever next to the gear lever which mechanically moves the clutch in and out. It can be locked to hold the clutch in as the hand changes gear.
Adaptations for Limited Hand Function
There are various adaptations available for people with limited hand functions, which allows a person to control the steering wheel or gear lever.
Foot Control Systems
Pedal extensions are available for people with short stature, whose feet cannot reach the pedals. The pedal conversions moves the accelerator pedal to the left for the people who can only use the left leg.
Adaptations for Amputees
A person who has lost a left leg can still drive an automatic vehicle without the need to make any changes. If the right leg is lost, the only change required is to move the accelerator to the left side.
However if the person has lost arms or part of the arms, any adaptations must be designed and built specifically according to which limbs are useable.
Dolf Jonker is an extreme example of this. He was born with no arms, and grew up doing everything with his feet. Why not drive too? He recently had a BMW adapted for him by Independent Drive Systems. The steering wheel was removed and a steering mechanism was fitted to the floor with a shoe permanently attached.
Dolf slides his right foot into the shoe and is then able to move the shoe around in an arc, which enables him to steer the car. The brake and accelerator pedals have been moved to the left, along with an indicator lever, all of which can easily be controlled by his left foot. The “keyless” system on the BMW has done away with the need to turn a key, as long as he has the “key” somewhere on his body, the vehicle is able to “sense” his presence, and he just has to push a button to open the doors and to start the car.
Peter Badenhorst has his left arm amputated through the shoulder and his right arm amputated just below the elbow. His vehicle has been adapted so that all of his electrical controls have been moved to a panel on the floor with large switches which, he can activate with his left foot, while his right foot controls the accelerator and brake as usual. His right arm fits into a prosthesis which has been attached to the steering wheel through a ball joint. All electrical controls have been moved to a panel on the floor.
Nicky Abdinor was born with phocomelia – she has no arms and shortened legs and drives an adapted Honda Civic imported from the UK. It has a hydraulic steering joystick which she operates with her right shoulder. The foot pedals have been extended and the gears and handbrake are electrically operated with switches on a raised brake pedal which she operates with her toes. The wipers, indicator, etc. are operated by a beeper system operated by her left foot.