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Doctor, when can I drive?

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Your provider realizes that driving a car is a necessity of everyday life for many people. So when something happens—whether it’s a flat tire or a fractured leg—drivers want it fixed quickly so they can get back on the road again.

With this in mind, patients must realize that all injuries and procedures can alter one’s ability to drive. Braking and accelerating require coordinated activity at the hip, knee and ankle. Steering and shifting require use of the shoulder, elbow and wrist. Sitting upright and watching the road requires good spine function. As we see it, driving requires total body coordination.

Based on the available studies, patients who sustain major lower extremity fractures should delay driving the longest, but nearly every orthopedic procedure will have some impact on a patient’s ability to drive safely. The decision to resume driving should be individualized, as everyone’s body heals at different rates. Patients and their doctors need to talk early on about what impact the procedure may have on driving skills and, after the surgery, how the recovery is proceeding. For elective procedures, driving discussions should take place when the decision to schedule surgery is made.

Most studies have considered emergency braking to be the critical test that allows a patient to return to driving without posing a risk to others, but several other factors must be considered:

  • After total hip replacement, the ability to sit safely in a car is a concern and if the car seat is low, patients may be at risk for dislocation.
  • Although some evidence suggests that chronic narcotic use may not affect braking ability, patients should avoid driving while taking any medicines that can impair cognitive function. These medications may delay reaction time and make driving unsafe.
  • Immobilization of any part of the upper body can affect the ability to shift gears and turn the steering wheel. Even highly trained drivers do not drive well while wearing casts or removable splints.
  • Insurance companies and law enforcement agencies generally consider the patient to be the only person responsible for determining when he or she is fit to drive. There is no “medical clearance” or “doctor’s note” that can help alleviate risk if you are in an accident or receive a ticket for your driving.

The following table contains suggestions for determining your return to driving based on scientific data for braking time during normal driving conditions.

table-01

About Dr. Joe McCormick

Dr. Joe McCormick, orthopaedic surgeon, provides comprehensive orthopaedic surgery care with an emphasis in joint replacement, sports-related injuries, and pediatrics. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

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