Car Shopping for RA
Last updated: March 2023
A couple of months before my 16th birthday my mom got me the most amazing gift any teenager could want: a car. It was a 12-year-old Nissan and was nothing fancy, but it was a car, it was red, and it was mine. I was in heaven.
Learning to drive before having RA
A year earlier my mom had taught me to drive on her car, which was an automatic transmission. However, my beautiful red piece of adulthood and freedom was a stick shift. Naturally, I was more than happy to learn how to drive a manual transmission, although it was definitely tricky and awkward at first. Yet, once I got the hang of it, I absolutely loved the feeling of driving totally engaged, with my left hand on the wheel, my right hand on the gear shift, my left foot on the clutch, and my right foot on the gas. I vividly remember the moment when I first drove on a highway without anyone else in the car. I felt powerful, alive, and vivacious.
Difficult to drive stick with RA
That was six years before my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that makes me feel the exact opposite of how I felt that day. Rather than feeling in control, RA often pushes me out of the driver’s seat of my own life. There are many times when I have plans that are derailed by pain, swelling, and fatigue. Such was the case with my stick shift. I loved driving a manual transmission, and when the Nissan conked out on me, I definitely wanted another standard. Not only are they less expensive, I loved that feeling that I was working the machine of the car, not just passively sitting back. Yet, once my RA kicked into high gear, it turned out that being a little more passive was exactly what I needed. My left wrist and fingers screamed in protest each time I got behind the wheel, as using my right hand to shift placed more strain on my left hand while steering solo. My hips and knees seared with pain working the clutch in addition to the gas and brakes. To my dismay, I realized it was time to go used car shopping yet again, but this time for an automatic transmission.
My search for an RA-friendly car
When I began that search for my first automatic, I realized that the transmission was not the only factor that I had to consider in finding a car that suited my RA needs. Rather than focusing solely on price, fuel efficiency, performance and aesthetics, I also have to take into account the ergonomics of a vehicle before I can commit to purchasing it. Here are some of the features that have proven the most important to my driving comfort in the 15 years since my diagnosis.
Arm rests. I have been amazed to discover how many cars do not have adequate arm rests. Of course, smaller cars aren’t going to have the actual arm rests that some larger vehicles offer, but there are many compact cars and sedans that are not designed with elbows in mind. I went through a number of options I was initially interested in, but as soon as I sat down in the driver’s seat any interest in a test drive disappeared due to lack of anyplace to rest my arm. Either there wasn’t a center console or it was too low to rest my right arm on (being tall doesn’t help), or the door didn’t offer a wide or high enough shelf by the handle to rest my left elbow on. Being able to rest my elbows while driving greatly reduces the strain not only on those joints, but also on my shoulders, neck, and even my wrists. It is an important feature for any vehicle I’m going to drive long term or long distances.
Head rests. I’ve also been surprised to experience how many cars feature head rests that do not actually seem designed to rest your head against. They are often too far back, forcing the driver to lean his/her head back rather than allow the neck to be upright. These types of headrests serve more as catcher’s mitts in the event of an accident, rather than as an actual support for one’s head. As both a driver and a passenger I’ve sat in many cars where it put more strain on my neck and shoulders to place my head against the headrest than to sit without any head support. Therefore, when I’m shopping for a car I look for headrests that are either designed to actually support one’s head or that are adjustable horizontally (not just vertically) so that I can get the support I need.
Cruise control. I imagine this feature is standard on most models nowadays, but I definitely make sure it is included in the vehicle and is operating correctly, as cruise control is crucial for my comfort on any road trip. Greatly reducing the time my foot spends on the gas and brakes eliminates much of the strain driving can cause for my right ankle, knee and hip. Some new cars now have something called “adaptive cruise control,” which works with sensors to automatically slow down or speed up in relation to the car in front of you. That way you don’t even have to use your foot when you suddenly end up behind someone driving the minimum speed on the interstate. My car is a 2007, so I don’t have that feature, but I look forward to it in the future.
Vehicle Height. I have always been conscious of fuel efficiency, so when SUVs became all the rage I did not hop on to that bandwagon. I had always driven smaller cars, so I didn’t know what a difference driving a vehicle higher off the ground made. Yet, when I was pregnant and traded in my sedan for a minivan, I quickly realized how much more comfortable it is to drive a larger vehicle. Getting in and out of a taller car is infinitely easier on my knees and hips. Even while seated, I find a higher vehicle makes a huge difference. Sitting in a minivan or SUV is more like being in a regular chair, whereas sitting in a smaller car puts your feet and legs further in front of you, more like those low beach chairs used for sitting in the waves. Additionally, I find the larger cars seem to better absorb the jolts of driving, so that my joints are not required to do as much shock absorption. I have become so accustomed to the comfort of driving our minivan that when I occasionally drive my husband’s Corolla I am shocked at how much more strain sitting lower to the ground places on my knees and hips. Because of this, I will drive vehicles that are higher off the ground even when my kids are older and a minivan isn’t as practical. Fortunately, there are now many smaller SUVs on the market that are an excellent compromise between the size of traditional SUVs and the fuel efficiency of smaller cars.
I wish that I didn’t have to factor all these considerations into my life as a driver. Yet, since I can’t change the fact that I have RA, making sure that my vehicle accommodates my joints as much as possible goes a long way in keeping me in the driver’s seat.
Did you know rheumatologist Dr. Donica Baker is answering community questions?
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