New service at UF Health helps at-risk motorists assess, improve their driving skills

Luther King, DrOT, left; Clark Letter, Ph.D.; Sherrilene  Classen, Ph.D.; Michael G. Perri, Ph.D., dean of the College of Public Health  and Health Professions; Dan Hoffman, Gainesville assistant city manager; and  Jeffrey Hagen, president and CEO of Oak Hammock help the UF department of  occupational therapy launch the SmartDrive Driver Rehabilitation Program at  the Oak Hammock at the University of Florida campus. Photo by Jesse S. Jones. In the state of Florida, nearly 20 percent of the population is age 65 or older. For many, progression in age can mean regression in driving ability. But a new service offered by the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of occupational therapy aims to give seniors and others a chance to improve their skills behind the wheel.

The UF SmartDrive Driver Rehabilitation Program has two parts. First, there is an assessment of the driver. This involves a series of tests: A cognitive evaluation, a vision assessment, a motor assessment, a series of appropriate paper tests and an on-road assessment  supervised by a certified driver rehabilitation specialist.

The second part consisits of the intervention itself. Luther King, Dr.O.T., a clinical assistant professor in the department of occupational therapy, serves as the program’s certified driver rehabilitation specialist.

“The overall objective of SmartDrive Rehab is to keep individuals independent and safe on the road in their community,” said King.

SmartDrive is primarily designed for medically at-risk drivers though the lifespan, with services available for seniors or younger drivers with neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis, or medical conditions deriving from injury like amputation, paralysis and brain trauma.

One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to driving assessments for the elderly, King said, is that it’s a ploy to take away their driver’s licenses and therefore their independence.

But the reality, King believes, is the opposite.

“I make sure they are safe, comfortable and competent behind the wheel,” he said.

Based on their assessment, each driver receives a personalized intervention plan from King. This can be a process as simple as practicing driving skills behind the wheel or planning new travel routes to minimize risk and difficulty when driving.

For significant obstacles, more complex solutions are offered. Clients with medical conditions that make operating a vehicle’s default controls difficult can still be cleared to get back on the road.

King can offer “vehicle  prescriptions,” which are accessories or modifications to a client's vehicle specific to their situation. These additions are contracted out to a vehicle modifier, a third party affiliated with the program.

For example, King said a client may have had a stroke and no longer have adequate strength in his or her legs. The vehicle can be outfitted with adaptive equipment: a spinner knob so the driver can safely turn the steering wheel with only one hand or a push-pull steering and braking mechanism on their dashboard, with pulling associated with acceleration and pushing tied to braking.

Other modifications can include software upgrades like sensors to alert the driver when there’s a vehicle in their blind spot, self-parking abilities and automated brakes that activate if an imminent crash is detected.

Despite these services, some clients may still be assessed as unable to operate a vehicle. SmartDrive Director Sherrilene Classen, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the occupational therapy department, said that doesn’t mean SmartDrive can’t help them. In lieu of personalized rehabilitation programs, these clients receive a SmartDrive “mobility plan.”

“Driving may be a privilege, but mobility is a right,” she said.

This plan matches clients with agencies or public transportation routes allowing them to still travel independently and be able to engage with their communities.

 While assessments are rarely mandatory, usually only as the result of a court order following a traffic accident, Classen hopes that residents in Alachua and Marion counties, and other areas in North Central Florida, will turn to SmartDrive to improve their driving skills and maintain their independence.

SmartDrive services are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. According to Classen, initial assessments cost $500. Rehabilitation costs vary, though she said $150 an hour would be a typical rate. See for details.

Most insurance plans don’t currently cover driver rehabilitation, but state and federal vocational programs may provide funding if a client needs to drive in order to return to work. If medical conditions or injuries that necessitate a driving assessment originated from an incident where the client was not at fault, damages may be requested through the court system to cover the costs of rehabilitation.