woman with multiple sclerosis driving a car

Driving with Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects the nerves’ ability to conduct signals from the brain or spinal cord to the body. Depending on the nerves affected, MS symptoms will vary. 

MS may cause problems with:

  • vision
  • muscles
  • cognition (memory loss)
  • fatigue

How important are vision abilities for driving?

Vision abilities are crucial for driving. Drivers use their vision to identify hazards on the roadway, navigate in familiar and unfamiliar environments, and judge gaps at intersections and during lane changes. 

MS can cause nystagmus, an involuntary repetitive movement of the eyes or weakness in the muscles that control eye movements. 

When driving, these challenges may make it difficult to judge gaps at intersections and lane changes or scan the roadway for hazards.

What are cognitive skills?

Cognitive skills are also essential for driving. Drivers use their cognitive skills to concentrate on the roadway, make decisions about hazards and other roadway conditions. 

MS may affect divided attention skills. A driver uses divided attention to monitor the multiple actions at an intersection (e.g., brake lights, traffic lights, pedestrians etc). Fatigue, a common symptom may interfere with concentration.

MS may affect planning skills that help a driver navigate. Difficulties with planning may result in significant driving errors such as moving into a turn lane without completing the steps for a lane change. 

Decreased processing speed (or pace of thinking) can also be a challenge with MS. If a driver experiences delays in processing speed, they may have delayed reactions.

What strength does driving require?

Driving requires more strength than most people appreciate. Turning a steering wheel against the resistance of power steering or drive by wire steering requires strength. 

Moving the foot between the accelerator and brake requires lifting the foot against gravity. For drivers with right leg weakness, they may experience their foot slipping off the brake pedal. 

For drivers who use mobility aids, transferring them in and out of a car can be an additional challenge.

Consult with your physician

If a person with MS is concerned or if a family member or a friend is concerned it is best to have a conversation with the physician treating the MS. The doctor may recommend that you see an occupational therapist that specializes in driving rehabilitation. 

These professionals can assess driving abilities. They may use clinical assessment tools to test vision, cognitive, and physical skills for driving. For example, the clinical evaluation may assess visual-spatial skills, reaction time, divided attention and memory among other skills. 

They might also evaluate your driving skills with a driving simulator or a dual controlled vehicle. Most driving rehabilitation programs also offer interventions for individuals that would benefit. 

These interventions might include adaptive equipment to compensate for physical deficits, or strategies to manage vision and cognitive challenges.

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About Drive Focus

Drive Focus teaches strategies to compensate for the cognitive and visual challenges that people with multiple sclerosis might experience.

Dr. Miriam Monahan

Dr. Miriam Monahan

Dr. Monahan is the founder and director of the Driver Rehabilitation Institute and a leader in the field of cognition and driving.

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