On the road to recovery

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Epworth’s new simulator mimics true driving situations and helps patients get back behind the wheel

Electronic vehicle control, automatic cruise control, navigational aids such as lane control system, vehicle-to-vehicle or highway-to-vehicle communication and warning devices – yes, we’re talking cars here, but simulated, not real. The Driver Education Program at Epworth Rehabilitation helps those who are recovering from an injury or illness that has resulted in physical or cognitive changes.

The program was established 26 years ago by occupational therapist Pam Ross and has helped thousands of Australians return to driving following rehabilitation. Ms Ross recently upgraded the program with the help of a generous former patient’s donation to Epworth Medical Foundation. She invested the funds in a new ULTRA 2 Driver Simulation machine, imported to Australia by the French group ECA, which makes simulators for a range of vehicles, spacecraft, ships and planes.

Most patients are referred to the Driver Education Centre after having suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car or workplace accident that has resulted in cognitive and physical impairment. Some others are referred following amputation, stroke, diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Ms Ross says most patients are eager to return to driving but may need a new understanding of how their physical or cognitive changes might alter the way they handle a car. This simulator is an effective educational tool that builds confidence in a safe environment and helps patients prepare for the driver assessment test.

“We’ve noticed many of our young male patients are very keen to get behind the wheel again and these sessions help them gauge their readiness for the next stage of preparing for their test with VicRoads,” Ms Ross said.

This simulator – one of the first of its kind to arrive in Australia – mimics true driving situations. Apart from the features mentioned earlier, it allows the driver or the instructor to change speed, traffic conditions and braking distances in different weather conditions. For the driver, the sounds, vibrations and motions are the same as those in a real car driving along a real road or highway.

“The simulator shows us what adjustments are required to the vehicle, for instance, where a spinner knob could be added to the steering wheel for a patient with reduced leg movement or how an adapter can be attached to the pedals to enable them to accelerate and brake by hand.”

Ms Ross witnessed the success two patients with multiple sclerosis had using such modifications recently. Ms Ross is in the process of completing her PhD in this important subject and has been previously recognised by the RACV with a Sir Edmund Herring Memorial Scholarship (to help prevent road trauma).

More recently, she won a scholarship from Epworth. These funds have enabled Ms Ross to study and review several hundred driving assessments conducted at Epworth over the past decades to determine the factors influencing a successful result for the patient, whether they be previous driving experience or severity of the initial injury or subsequent physical disability.

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