Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) often causes joint pain and stiffness (especially in the hands and feet), reduced mobility, and fatigue. Taken separately, any of these problems could make driving difficult; put them together, and you have a potential recipe for dangerous driving.
Although there’s no evidence that people with RA are more prone to car accidents than anyone else, many patients say that the condition interferes with their driving ability. According to a survey of more than 700 RA patients published in the Journal of Rheumatology, about half of people with rheumatoid arthritis reported some difficulty driving. Another survey, published in the journal Rheumatology, showed similar results: About half of RA patient surveyed had trouble getting in and out of the car, about one-third had issues backing up, and about 25 percent had issues looking left and right at an intersection.
To obtain some objective information about how much RA might impact driving ability, University of Nebraska researchers conducted a study in which they installed black box recording devices in the personal cars of 33 people with RA and 23 people without RA. The devices measured vehicle speed, steering variability, and acceleration variability as participants engaged in whatever driving they normally would over the course of at least four weeks.
The findings of the study, which was published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, revealed some notable differences between how people with RA act as drivers as compared to the general population. People with RA had lower variability in acceleration when driving at lower speeds and greater steering variability when driving at higher speeds. The researchers also found that RA patients with higher disease activity were more apt to engage in “harsh/erratic braking and accelerating during interstate driving.”
The authors concluded that “RA and worsening RA disease severity [are linked] with aberrant vehicle control.” They noted that this study used vehicle control as a surrogate of safety, since car crashes and tickets for erratic driving don’t happen frequently enough to be studied for differences that might be attributed to RA.
“This report begins to address deficits in our understanding of how RA might impact contemporary driving performance and safety,” the wrote, adding that “further work is needed to translate these driving behaviors into other quantifiable measures of driving risk.”
If you experience discomfort when driving due to your rheumatoid arthritis, you may want to consider working with an occupational therapist, who can provide tips to making driving with RA more comfortable. And if you worry that your driving is bordering on dangerous, make a plan with your health care provider and or loved ones to find other modes of transportation.
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Busteed S, et al. Rheumatoid arthritis impairs driving ability even in patients with a low disability index. Rheumatology. January 2004. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/rheumatology/keg455.
Cranney AB, et al. Driving problems in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Journal of Rheumatology. December 2005. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16331759/.
Mikuls TR, et al. Vehicle Control as a Measure of Real-World Driving Performance in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Arthritis Care & Research. August 16, 2021. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/acr.24769.
Vrkljan Bh, et al. Supporting Safe Driving With Arthritis: Developing a Driving Toolkit for Clinical Practice and Consumer Use. American Journal of Occupational Therapy. March 10, 2021. doi: https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.64.2.259./