About 65% of people with disabilities drive a car or other vehicle, compared to 88% of non-disabled persons – as reported by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Disabilities vary greatly, with some hardly affecting someone’s ability to drive, and others affecting mobility and requiring vehicle adaptations.
Technology is responding to these needs by making it easier for drivers to find and share information, navigate apps, and boost their safety.
Many of these innovations are the result of the need to legally comply with landmark rulings that stipulate that the disabled should not be discriminated against when it comes to access to transport.
However, they often fall short because of a lack of public policy and funding.
Legal Obligations Covering Transport Accessibility For The Disabled
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Supreme Court case Olmstead v L.C. are considered key legal pillars regarding the rights of people who cannot drive to access transport.
They established that public transportation systems should accommodate the needs of disabled passengers (for instance through priority seating for wheelchairs in buses).
The Olmstead case aimed “to ensure people with disabilities are living, learning, working, and enjoying life in the most integrated setting.” As stated in research by F Douma and colleagues, efforts to increase transport found a perfect partner in self-driving vehicles (SDVs). Features such as automatic braking, enhanced driverless cruise control, and automatic parking are making transits more accessible to disabled drivers.
While we are still years away from having fully self-driving cars, major inroads have been made that enable drivers with visual impairments to take to the wheel in a much more confident and safe manner.
Self-Driving Cars: Complying With The Spirit Of The ADA
Self-driving cars in the Lyft app offer blind travelers the chance to get to their chosen destination without needing to own a car.
Luft, Aptiv, and the National Federation of the Blind are working together to create a more interactive, educational, and engaging self-driving experience, Lyft has worked alongside experts at the Visually Impaired Media and Accessible Design Lab and San Francisco’s Lighthouse for the blind to develop Braille guides.
These include maps of self-driving routes and diagrams of the self-driving vehicle of choice. In 2019, Lyft provided over 50,000 autonomous rides for the blind in Las Vegas, in an effort to show the extent to which autonomous vehicles can very much bridge the gap in transportation between disabled and non-disabled drivers.
Brands like Hyundai, meanwhile, are using artificial intelligence and sound sensors to visually portray exterior sounds to drivers; these systems differentiate between different types of sound – including ambulances as construction sounds.
As much as these innovations are taking the driving experience to new heights for disabled drivers, they are also limited in number and most car manufacturers are targeting their effort at the private market.
Legally Permitted Modifications For Vehicles
Thanks to anti-discrimination legislation, a wide array of modifications are currently permitted in vehicles driven by the disabled – including automatic window and door openers, voice control engine start/stop or touch ignition, power assist steering, hand controls for braking and steering, and remote switches.
Some disabilities – such as cerebral palsy (CP) – can make tasks such as driving more physically and mentally taxing than it is for those without this disability. Common types of cerebral palsy include spastic CP (causing weakness, muscle stiffness, difficulty with controlling movement, and other challenges) and ataxic CP (which can lead to weakness in limbs).
In some cases, hand-eye coordination, memory, awareness, judgment, and the ability to follow directions can pose obstacles to safe driving.
However, when a person with CP is able to drive, key modifications can enable them to transport themselves safely to work, educational institutions, and the like. Once again, most modified vehicles are costly and therefore inaccessible to disabled persons with limited or small incomes.
A Stronger Public Policy Response Is Key
As stated by F Douma, SDVs have the potential to eliminate transport problems for those who are unable to drive, but the extent to which the disabled will be able to access SDVs once they are fully automated will fully depend on public policy decisions.
As the current policy stands, manufacturers have little incentive to develop SDVs for any market other than the private one. Douma suggests that governments incorporate ‘fleet’ models into the public transport system so that drivers can pay by trip.
Public policy could additionally ensure that disabled persons paid discounted fares. Tax incentives aimed at vehicle manufacturers, meanwhile, would enable these companies to cater newly designed vehicles to passengers with disabilities.
The majority of people with disabilities do not let their disability get in the way of driving. A vast array of technologies have made this possible – from AI and sensors right through to autonomous driving tech.
These breakthroughs may be a step forward in accessibility, but their prohibitive price and private nature suggest that public policy must play a bigger role in ensuring that the right to transport is enjoyed by all.