Tips for Buying a New Car When You Have RAby Marianna Paulson, B.Ed., B.P.E.-O.R. Patient Advocate
When you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), your car can be more than just a mode of transportation — it gives you freedom and independence to get out into the world. When it's time to buy a car, comfort and ease of use will matter more to you than to someone without a chronic illness. Create a checklist so you can find the car that is right for you. Regardless of whether it is a new or used vehicle, it's worth your time to test out several makes and models before you make your final decision.
If you can manage it, do your vehicle tests when you're in pain. It will give you a more accurate picture of how suitable the vehicle is for you. When pain isn't an issue, you might gloss over your needs and make a purchase that you'll come to regret. Understandably, your energy may be limited, so take your time to make your vehicle comparisons. You're going to have the car for a while, so it's wise to invest some time doing thorough research.
How easy is it for you to open the car doors? Are they too heavy for you? Do they open and close easily? Be sure to test all the doors, including the one for the trunk or cargo space. Some car models have a function that allows you to open the doors and trunk space in a hands-free manner. This may be a balm to your joints in the future.
As a driver, I want a seat that meets a number of criteria. I have walked away from vehicles that don't have the features I need to be comfortable during my drive. Are you able to raise/lower the seat height? Is the seat back adjustable to the position you need? Is the seat bottom long enough to support most of your legs? Are you able to hold the steering wheel without having your head hang forward like a hat on a coat rack, or strain your shoulders? Your posture is important during your drive.
A lot of newer cars have push-button ignitions. How much pressure do you have to apply to start the car? If a key is required, it may be easier to use it when the ignition is on the dashboard as opposed to the steering column. How much torque is required in your wrist? Are you able to manage when you grip the key and turn it? If pushing a button is hard for you, but a key presents problems as well, there are adaptive tools to help you.
If you've found the perfect position for the seat, but now you can't reach the steering column, look for one that is telescopic. You want to be able to pull it toward you, or push it away from you, as well as raise or lower it. Be mindful of what happens to your head when you change the position of the steering column, and make sure you're able to keep your neck in alignment with your spine.
Two words: power mirrors. Without them, it's a nuisance to adjust the mirrors, especially if there's more than one driver using the car. If your neck is stiff, you may want to invest in some aftermarket mirrors; all the better to see, my dear! You may wish to change out your rearview mirror for one that is wider to give you more coverage. I bought little mirrors to stick on my side view mirrors that, when properly adjusted, eliminated my blind spot.
Shifting into drive
For years, I preferred to drive a manual. But with the progression of my RA, and a move to a big city with stop-and-go traffic, I now drive a car with an automatic transmission. The car we have shifts easily into the various gears, unlike our previous automatic model that required you to depress a button on the shifter to put the car into park-neutral-drive-reverse, which was almost impossible for my RA hands.
Kids, groceries, and gear
Where are you going to put your kids, groceries, and gear? How easy is it to access? Is there enough room for it all? When we were testing used cars, the salesman allowed me to take it home to see whether it was a good fit for our dog. We bought the car, not only because the dog liked it, but also because it met all my criteria. The Mazda 5 is my “Porsche.” What will your “Porsche” be?
Helpful doodads for driving with RA
- A key fob bumper is a protective sleeve for key fobs. If you tend to drop your keys a lot, you'll want this.
- A car cane is a handle you slip in the doorlatch to allow you to pull yourself up.
- Use a wrench to open and close the gas cap when fingers can't do the job.
- A wedge-shaped cushion from the foam shop can made driving a lot more comfortable.
- If you have trouble moving into position on your seat, place a plastic bag on the seat to make pivoting easier.
Resources for your car search
- Word of mouth has value. Talk to your friends and family members. Ask to test drive their vehicles. I’ve even solicited advice from people in the parking lot. It backfired once because the guy admitted to being biased as he was a salesman for a dealership!
- Phil Edmonston at LemonAidCars.com provides great advice to help you avoid buying a lemon.
- Look for sites like newcars.com for trade-in and negotiation tips as well as black book market value.
And away you go
Whether it's a quick drive to the store or a long commute, you deserve to drive a car that doesn't leave you feeling like you've been beaten up. I find that one of the benefits of creating a checklist is that the pushy car salesman may not be as pushy, probably because you have specific needs. Before you drop that wad of cash, do as many test drives as possible until you've found the right car for you, Goldilocks! Bon voyage!