Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a form of inflammatory arthritis that may impair a person’s ability to drive. However, various assistive devices and modifications can help a person maintain their driving independence.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that people with RA have a higher risk of motor vehicle accidents than those without, the condition can make certain aspects of driving — including getting in and out of the car and checking to the left and right — more difficult.

This article discusses how RA affects a person’s ability to drive. It also provides tips on how to maintain safe driving and options to consider when a person can no longer drive safely.

RA is an autoimmune disease, which means that the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissues in the body, leading to inflammation.

Although many people associate RA with joint pain and stiffness, the condition can also affect other areas of the body, including the organs. The combined effect of pain, stiffness, fatigue, and other signs and symptoms can reduce a person’s ability to drive a car comfortably and safely.

In a 2020 review, researchers looked at the prevalence of driving issues among people living with RA. They found that it was quite common for these individuals to experience difficulty when driving and to need assistive devices to help them safely operate a vehicle.

In a 2021 study, researchers looked at how RA affects driving ability. They noted that an increase in disease activity correlated with an increase in variability when braking and accelerating on high speed roads.

RA can affect a person’s ability to drive in various ways, including:

  • pain and stiffness in the hands and wrists can make it difficult to grasp the steering wheel, signal turns, or put on a safety belt
  • limited mobility in the neck and shoulders can make it difficult to turn the head and check blind spots
  • pain or stiffness can prevent a person from braking safely

In addition, some of the medications that doctors prescribe to treat RA can make a person drowsy, which can affect their reaction time and reflexes. Fatigue resulting from the disease can also have a similar effect. As a result, a person may have a reduced ability to stop safely and react to traffic situations.

Despite the added challenges, a person living with RA or other forms of arthritis can typically drive safely. The following are some tips for driving safely and comfortably when living with RA.

General changes

In some cases, a person can take extra steps to prepare before getting behind the wheel of their car. They may find it beneficial to make some changes to their routines and how they plan their trips.

People with RA can help improve their safety when driving by:

  • adjusting the mirrors as necessary prior to driving
  • avoiding manual transmission vehicles
  • making adjustments to the seat, armrest, and other areas that affect comfort
  • wearing compression socks and supportive shoes when driving
  • considering using a donut cushion, lumbar spine support, or heated seat cover for added comfort and control
  • considering taking a course geared toward driving with arthritis
  • getting regular exercise to minimize stiffness and maintain range of motion
  • allowing time for stops and breaks during a long car trip
  • taking RA treatments as the doctor prescribed them

If a person wants assistance with understanding their options and training for driving safety, they can consider scheduling an evaluation with a driver rehabilitation specialist.

Adjustments to the car

In some cases, making modifications to a person’s vehicle could improve their ability to drive safely. A person can consider some of the following modifications to help with their driving:

  • using a steering wheel cover that provides extra grip
  • installing a spinning knob on the steering wheel to aid in making turns
  • adding adaptive foot and hand controls to the car
  • installing a support bar to help with getting in and out of the car

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provides more information about adaptive tools that people can use for their vehicles.

Other adjustments

A person may also find it helpful to make some of the following adjustments and adaptations to help them maintain their driving independence:

  • using a key turning device or installing an automatic start button
  • using a key topper to help locate and grasp the keys and turn on the car
  • using cruise control when possible
  • attaching a seatbelt ID with medical information that would be helpful in the event of an accident
  • carrying an unbuckling device to help with taking a seatbelt off
  • learning when they should not drive due to safety concerns
  • registering for a disabled parking permit

If RA symptoms get worse or a person no longer feels comfortable driving, they can consider other ways of traveling around. The NHTSA suggests:

  • arranging rides with friends or family
  • using public transportation
  • using a taxi or another driving service
  • walking, if possible
  • talking with organizations, such as religious groups, charities, and clubs, about the possibility of shuttle services

A person living with RA does not have to stop driving altogether as long as they feel that they can safely and comfortably operate their vehicle. Various approaches can make driving easier, including the use of assistive devices in the vehicle.

If a person can no longer safely drive, they can look for shuttle services, use public transportation, rely on friends and family, or use taxi or driving services in their area.