Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Gadgets for disabled drivers get green light

More such assistive devices - and advanced ones - will be available here by next year
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 24 Oct 2016

Some people who have disabilities or suffered illnesses like a stroke have been able to get back behind the wheel, with the help of assistive gadgets installed in vehicles.

Gadgets such as a rotator knob attached to the steering wheel, or a hand-control gadget for the accelerator and brake pedals, have helped drivers overcome their disabilities.

The good news for these drivers is that more of these devices, advanced ones, will be available here by next year. These can be linked to the car's electronic control unit, making it easier to tap functions from acceleration to signalling.

Two devices - an over-ring accelerator and an infra-red remote control device - were approved by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in September last year, The Straits Times has learnt.

The Handicaps Welfare Association (HWA), the only organisation here that trains drivers to use these assistive devices, plans to make them available next year.

Meanwhile, it is conducting trials of the Italian-designed gadgets, and getting its driving instructors to become familiarised with them.

HWA executive director Subrata Banerjee said: "These electronic devices give an option to disabled people who may find it difficult to use the mechanical gadgets. But electronic gadgets also need finer dexterity and control."

The over-ring accelerator is mounted on top of the steering wheel and drivers lightly push it towards the wheel to accelerate. Braking is done mechanically, via a hand-controlled lever mounted under the steering column.

The infra-red remote control, on the other hand, is installed directly on the steering wheel with a metal clamp. It allows the user to activate the vehicle's headlights, signal indicators, windscreen wipers and horn, among other functions.

It also acts as a rotator knob, and assists drivers who have lost the use of one hand or find it difficult to use both hands to steer adequately.

The introduction of more gadgets is timely, given that more people are seeking help from Tan Tock Seng Hospital's (TTSH) Driving Assessment and Rehabilitation Programme (Darp), which works closely with the HWA.

Last year, the programme had more than 600 patients, a 20 per cent increase from 2014.

"Most cases we tend to are patients who have suffered from stroke... There's greater awareness of Darp among (the) disabled population and healthcare workers," said a TTSH spokesman.

The spokesman said the programme has also had amputees, patients with injuries to the spine, hands and ankles, and those with conditions such as diabetic neuropathy, a type of nerve damage.

Patients in the programme are first assessed by occupational therapists on their visual, cognitive, visual-perceptual and physical abilities.

If they are fit, they go through an on-road assessment by an HWA driving instructor and an occupational therapist. Those who need assistive devices go for lessons at HWA and are assessed again.

Once they are certified to be safe on the roads, a doctor endorses a driving report and patients have to inform the Traffic Police.

HWA's transport manager Simon Ching said that every month, it assesses and trains an average of eight drivers under its refresher courses. Each year, it also teaches about 15 beginners - those who are disabled and have no driving experience.

"Four to five years ago, we hardly had any students taking the refresher courses but, with the ageing population, we are seeing more," he said.

LTA has approved 66 cars with the assistive gadgets since 2013.

Mr Banerjee said: "Being able to drive again gives people confidence and independence."

Tool helps cabby drive with left foot
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 24 Oct 2016

With his hale and hearty appearance, most people who meet taxi driver Hong Yong Ming would not suspect that he suffered a stroke six years ago, which caused him to lose control over movements on the right side of his body.

While he recovered about a year later and could walk without an aid, he still had numbness in his right leg and hand.

Mr Hong, who worked in the construction industry, wanted to be able to drive again, and was referred to Tan Tock Seng Hospital's Driving Assessment and Rehabilitation Programme (Darp), where he was put through a driving assessment.

"Because of a sensory deficit, I didn't have the fine feeling of how much I was pressing on the accelerator or brake pedal. It was very jerky," Mr Hong, 50, said.

It was recommended that he use a left-foot accelerator.

This is an extension gadget which allows him to mechanically control the accelerator pedal, by introducing a second pedal for the left leg. The device also blocks the car's accelerator pedal on the right.

Mr Hong went through about 10 lessons with the Handicaps Welfare Association, before he was put through a test with an occupational therapist and a driving instructor.

"During the practice sessions, it initially felt awkward.

"But after three to four times, it got better and, after that, I never thought of using my right foot any more," he said.

Earlier this year, Mr Hong got his taxi driver's vocational licence and decided to leave the construction industry to become a cabby.

Cab operator Premier accepted his application after doing the necessary checks with the Land Transport Authority and getting a driving assessment report from Darp, he said.

Mr Hong paid about $780 in total to buy and install the removable left-foot accelerator in his taxi.

The device can be easily removed, so his relief driver can drive with the normal accelerator.

"Most of my passengers don't even know the difference," he said.

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