Electric cars and accessibility

What drivers with disabilities need to know

With over 345,000 electric vehicles (EVs) and in excess of 650,000 plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) on UK roads at the end of October 2021, it’s fair to say the nation is adopting the transition towards a cleaner means of travel. But how accurately does this represent the relationship between EVs and those with accessibility requirements?

In this guide, we’ll look to give those with accessibility requirements a comprehensive breakdown of how to make the most of your EV experience.

From looking at the barriers you might face, to finding the best ways to overcome them, we’ll explore what support is available to you, the pros and cons of getting behind the wheel of an electric model, and what changes are being made to make driving EVs more accessible for all.

Accessibility on the road

Driving can be a very different experience if you have a disability. Drivers with mobility challenges face hurdles which some road users wouldn’t even think about. Let’s explore how accessibility is represented on British roads.

Accessible driving statistics

Cars are becoming increasingly accessible for all drivers – but there’s still a noticeable gap between drivers who do and don’t have a disability on British roads. As per the Government’s latest transport statistics, research shows that there is a big gulf between the average distance travelled by someone with and without an accessibility requirement.

The figures showed adults without a disability:

Made 487 trips by car

Drove 4,219 miles

While drivers who had a pre-existing condition:

Made 306 trips by car

Drove 2,023 miles

Encouragingly though, the number of blue badges (parking permits issued by local authorities to a variety of drivers who need to make use of dedicated parking spaces) has seen a significant increase across the past couple of years – thanks largely to the scheme being extended to those with cognitive disabilities as well as physical ones. 2.44 million badges were held in the UK as of the last count, which represents an increase of 6.5%(149,000 new badges) from 2018.

Worryingly, a reasonable chunk of badge holders feel the way laws are enforced don’t do enough to prevent other road users from parking in these spaces. The same study found:

The most glaring contrast can be seen in the number of licence holders aged 17 and over in the UK. The figures showed:

2.44 million badges were held in the UK as of the last count, which represents an increase of 6.5% (149,000 new badges) from 2018.

The needs of drivers with a disability are being continuously put at the forefront of debates. There are now 13 mobility centres dotted across England alone (as of March 2021), with a further 52 satellite hubs.

That said, the number of assessments carried out at these centres has seen a drastic dip compared to the previous year – due in no short part to the COVID-19 pandemic. The numbers showed:

And when it comes to overall representation on the road, there’s definitely room for improvement. Currently, just 36% of eligible individuals are making the most of the Motability Scheme (which provides financial support to those who may need assistance driving or being driven).

What’s more, of all the vehicles on UK roads, just 3% (1.2 million) were in the disabled class tax bracket at the end of 2020.

Common disabilities which affect driving

There are a variety of medical conditions which can impact your ability to drive. Whether these are physical or non-physical, conditions from birth or something which may have developed over time, they can all play a role in someone’s ability to drive. Some of the most common conditions which can result in challenges on the road include:

Arthritis and joint pain

Stiffness or lack of mobility in your joints can make handling a car incredibly challenging. Additional mirrors, cameras to lessen the need for neck movement and hand-controlled pedals are usually employed to help people with these kinds of conditions.

Amputation or other limb disability

The loss of a limb, whether arm or leg, will have a big impact on a driver’s ability to steer, change gears (in manual cars), and use the foot pedals. It may also make it difficult to recharge or refuel a vehicle.

Neurological conditions

These kinds of conditions can affect reaction speeds, while weakening of the muscles caused by things like Multiple Sclerosis (MS) may also make it hard to control the wheel. Adaptations may also be required simply to help a driver get in and out of their car.

Our bodies ageing

As we age a number of the senses most vital for driving tend to worsen – namely vision, hearing and our ability to react quickly in certain situations. It may also become harder to remain as agile in the car for requirements like checking mirrors and blind spots.

Reporting your disability to the DVLA

If you find your medical condition has worsened and made it challenging to drive, or if you develop a notifiable medical condition, you’ll need to inform the DVLA. Examples of conditions which need to be reported include those listed above, as well as:

  • Diabetes or the taking of insulin

  • Sleep apnoea

  • Epilepsy

  • Strokes

  • Syncope

  • Glaucoma

  • Any heart conditions (including the use of pacemakers and atrial fibrillation)

You can check whether you need to inform the DVLA of your condition by either looking through their A-Z list of driving conditions or applying through their online service. If you choose the latter, you’ll need to provide:

  • Details of your current licence

  • Details of your condition

  • Confirmation of your entitlement to drive

  • GP consultant’s name and address

If it’s decided that you are no longer able to drive, you will be asked to surrender your licence. This will be the case if any of the following apply to you:

  • Your doctor says you need to stop driving for three months or longer

  • Your medical condition has prevented you from driving safely for three months or more

  • You no longer meet the required standards for driving because of your condition

Image of a drivers licence

If you find your medical condition has worsened and made it challenging to drive, or if you develop a notifiable medical condition, you’ll need to inform the DVLA.

Driving an EV with a disability

If you’re interested in driving an EV, it’s important to understand how to maximise the performance of your car to help you. Let’s discuss what adaptations you can make, as well as help and support available from the Motability Scheme for EV drivers with a disability.

Benefits of an EV for someone with a disability

Weighing up the potential of driving an EV? It makes a lot of sense, as there are definitely advantages for those with a disability. We all know about the environmental benefits of driving vehicles which don’t use an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE vehicles), but how else can they help someone who’s registered as disabled?

Some of the areas where using this kind of vehicle can be beneficial include:

A smoother ride

The clunky vibrations which can be associated with older ICE vehicles are a thing of the past for drivers of EVs. This can be particularly helpful to drivers who experience muscular dystrophy, severe joints pains or similar conditions triggered by excess movement.

Reduced noise

Likewise, any driver who is sensitive to loud noises – for example someone who has tinnitus – will enjoy the welcome relief of a quiet, battery-powered vehicle. EVs are actually so quiet that they often have to be fitted with external sound emitters to ensure pedestrians know a car is nearby.

Non-grip charging

While charging an EV certainly poses a series of hurdles (more on that later), it can at least be said that the process itself requires less time spent manually gripping – unlike in the case of a nozzle-fuelled ICE vehicle. This is a major help to those with muscular problems, artificial limbs or any kind of joint pain.

Lower running costs

Figures show that it can be up to £756.44 cheaper a year to run an EV when compared to traditional ICE vehicles, and allowances exist to further financially support those with a disability.

Barriers to driving EVs for drivers with disabilities

While the needs of drivers with mobility restrictions are being taken into consideration more now than ever before, there’s still progress which needs to be made to ensure all cars are fully accessible. According to a report by The Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN), some of the most commonly cited barriers for drivers with a disability are:

Charging accessibility

This has become an ongoing issue for EV drivers with accessibility requirements. Charging points are often hard to access for those with mobility restrictions, while issues like the weight of chargers and access to them from parking locations can be an issue too.

Range anxiety and other psychological barriers

Range anxiety is the name given to the fear of an EV running out of power before reaching its next potential charging point. What’s more, accessible charging points are not always clearly signposted, adding to their anxiety.

Upfront costs

While there’s definitely a long-term sense in purchasing an EV, you may find the upfront costs of buying the car to be a little high. This could be either as a result of the value of the car itself, or the need to install an at-home charging point, or both.

A lack of information

Advice and support for drivers with disabilities is also sometimes hard to find. The same SSEN report found that most mobility impaired drivers will turn to able-bodied motoring specialists for their information, even though these are usually limited in providing support for those with specific medical conditions.

Accessible adaptions for EVs

Just as with traditional ICE vehicles, EVs are capable of being fitted with a number of adaptions to make them more accessible to drivers. Here are some of the best options that can be added to your vehicle:

Hand controls

Introducing something like a push or pull device to help with accelerating and braking can be useful for drivers who aren’t able to freely use the lower half of their body. These work fantastically for automatic gearboxes, which EVs exclusively use.

Pedal modifications

If you still want to use pedals as they are traditionally intended, you can extend them to reach up to your feet. This makes driving more comfortable and simple for those who cannot reach them at the standard distance.

Electronic accelerators

For those who aren’t able to freely use pedals when driving, but also lack the strength to use a push and pull lever, there are a series of electronic accelerators available. These can be placed throughout different areas of your vehicle:

  • Trigger accelerator – You pull this forward to accelerate and push away to brake

  • Over ring accelerator – This is placed on the steering wheel, pushing down to accelerate

  • Under ring accelerator – This is put behind the wheel, with speed controlled by you pulling it towards the wheel

  • Ghost ring accelerator – This is also fitted behind the wheel, with a driver controlling speed by moving it from side-to-side

Each of these will come with a hand-operated brake device.

Steering aids

If you have trouble holding or moving a traditional wheel, a number of additions can be added. This includes a ball which can be used in one hand to control the direction you’re heading.

The Motability scheme for EVs

The Motability Scheme was set up to make it easier for drivers with a mobility restriction and their carers to affordably and safely get behind the wheel of a car. While initially intended for ICE vehicles, the scheme has been extended to cover electric alternatives as well. Drivers are able to lease cars through the scheme, with a variety of expenses taken care of.

Benefits of the scheme include:

  • A series of plug-in vehicles to choose from

  • Insurance for up to three named drivers

  • Servicing, maintenance and repairs all covered

  • Tyre and windscreen repair and replacement

  • Support for installing an at-home charging point

You will be eligible to join the scheme if you receive any of the following:

  • Enhanced Rate of the Mobility Component of Personal Independence Payment (ERMC PIP)

  • Higher Rate Mobility Component of Disability Living Allowance (HRMC DLA)

  • Armed Forces Independence Payment (AFIP)

  • War Pensioners’ Mobility Supplement (WPMS)

Help with charging your EV

As we’ve discovered, charging an EV can be one of the most challenging aspects of ownership when you drive with a disability. Let’s take a closer look at exactly why that is, the support you can receive, and advice on what’s being done to resolve the issue.

Accessibility barriers at charging points

There are a number of key barriers for people at charging points. Some of the biggest problems for drivers with a disability include:

The charging process

Reaching, using and handling the actual charge point itself has been cited as a real problem for a lot of drivers. Many find it heavy to hold, and find it a challenge to locate assistance when they need it. A recent survey reported that 41% of people found moving the charging cable to be difficult. 54% also said lifting the cable from the boot was a challenge.

The environment itself

Having space to comfortably move around both in and out of the car is already a key requirement for drivers with a disability. Many find that EV charging zones can be quite hard to access, most often owing to the absence of dropped kerb access and a flat parking area with level access.

The general lack of accessibility

Unbelievably, there is just one fully accessible charging point in the UK, representing 0.003% of all those available. Currently, only 25% of drivers with a disability feel comfortable driving an EV. If changes were made to the infrastructure of the charging system, that number would rise to 61%.

Support for charging your EV

Luckily, the need for additional support has not been overlooked. There are already a number of organisations who work to make it easier for someone with a mobility restriction to recharge their vehicle more easily.

Distribution Network Operator (DNO)

As the primary supplier of the electricity needed to power public or private charging points, DNOs are responsible for ensuring the network is installed safely. That means providing drivers with as much information about charger usage (and EVs as a whole) as they can.

Serving as a reliable source of information for drivers who are a little in the dark, they will provide key information on matters like:

  • Types of chargers and the impact they may have on an electricity network

  • Timings and cost of having a charger installed at home

  • Government grants and schemes

  • Locations of different public charge points across the UK

  • Step-by-step guides for factors like how a charger is installed and the connection process

  • Explanations on the cost of running, as well as a series of other frequently asked questions

By providing this information, drivers are able to more clearly understand the costs, restrictions, and financial support available to them before having to make any big decisions.

Manufacturers and charge companies

Organisations like Allied Mobility and the Motability Scheme do what they can to ensure the requirements of drivers with a disability are taken into account during the planning and construction of vehicles. Sometimes they will also provide images and information on the suitability of charge cables for a driver, before they make any decisions about purchasing or leasing.

Meanwhile, Urban Electric are a pop-up charge point company, who allow users to adjust the height of a retractable electronic charging bollard with the use of an app. This makes changing the height of the charging point as easy as the press of a button.

Accessibility organisations

Groups like AccessAble and People’s Parking are working together to provide drivers with a disability with easy-to-digest pictorial guides on charging points and accessibility at car parks. They draw on information made publicly accessible by Zap-Map, showing drivers with a disability additional data about each location (such as the height of the charging point, how it operates and the fees you might find there).

Possible solutions to charging EV charging barriers

As well as the additional support provided, drivers with a disability can also remain hopeful about a series of potential future solutions to the hurdle of charging. Some of the options include:

Car design changes

As motability issues continue to be discussed, it’s the responsibility of manufacturers to guarantee enough is being done to accommodate all drivers. That means modifying cars to be accessible for everyone, with ample space for any necessary medical equipment. It could also see the charge point of the car swapped in accordance with the need of the driver.

Longer trial periods for drivers with a disability

While it takes time for any driver to get used to a new vehicle, the process can be even more challenging for someone who also has to balance driving with a disability. As such, they may need longer than what’s offered to be able to make an informed decision.

Changes to charge point designs

Points can be made lower and more accessible (we’ve already discussed how Urban Electric are doing this), while payment systems can also be streamlined to make the process as easy as possible for those with cognitive or visual restrictions.

Inductive charging

This futuristic technology allows for a car to be charged by being parked over a specific spot. Electricity is sent through the air at a gap of four inches to a coil, which is attached to the underside of a vehicle. This method requires precision in parking – but with the continued efforts being made to perfect self-driving cars, it could be a realistic option for all drivers heading forwards.

Changing accessible standards in the UK

Thankfully, the need to revamp the charging system has been noted and is being addressed by the UK Government. They are working with the Department for Transport (DfT) and Motability to come together and introduce a new series of standards for those with accessibility needs at charging points.

At the core of their plans are three ambitions:

  • Ensuring kerb height, the space between bollards and the height of the charge points themselves are suitable for wheelchair users

  • Introducing standards which are accessible for all and take into account the plans to move towards a zero-emission future

  • Making sure there is guidance and advice on how to make all charge points more accessible by the summer of 2022

The standards will also mean EV drivers with a disability will be able to know ahead of time if a charge point meets their requirements. Public chargers will be placed into one of three different categories:

  1. Fully accessible

  2. Partially accessible

  3. Not accessible

Speaking on the newly proposed initiative, Transport Minister Rachel Maclean said:

"With sales of EVs increasing and the government’s Net Zero ambitions accelerating, I want to make it as easy as possible for EV drivers to charge up their vehicles at public charge points right across the UK, regardless of their mobility.

We are taking action to provide accessibility guidance to both operators and drivers to make sure that the transition to zero-emission driving will benefit everyone in society as we build back better."

Meanwhile, Barry Le Grys MBE, Chief Executive Officer at Motability, also weighed-in on the need to change things up:

"There is a risk that disabled people are left behind as the UK’s transition to electric vehicles approaches and Motability wants to ensure that this does not happen. We welcome the interest from the government in our research on electric vehicle charging and accessibility and we are excited about our partnership with the Office for Zero Emissions Vehicles to further this work.

We look forward to working together to create world-leading accessibility standards and to support the UK’s commitment to achieving zero emissions. Motability looks forward to a future where electric vehicle charging is inclusive for all."

With a series of organisations doing what they can to prioritise the needs of drivers with a disability, there’s genuine hope a new era of accessibility at charge points is on the horizon.

The standards will also mean EV drivers with a disability will be able to know ahead of time if a charge point meets their requirements.