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Safety and adapted vehicles

RiDC's consumer information, aimed at older and disabled people, is based on independent research, the experiences of consumers and experts and is completely unbiased.

Safety and adapted vehicles

Adapted driving controls are safe. However, any modification to the inside of your car and to the way you drive it introduces new risks. Successful adaptations should minimise these additional risks.

If you've driven before:

  • choose controls that are as close as possible to standard
  • you'll learn faster, make fewer mistakes and feel more confident.

If you're new to driving, or have made significant changes to the controls:

Secondary safety

Secondary safety describes the way the design of a vehicle protects you in a crash:

  • airbags, strengthened areas to protect you, deformable materials and steering columns that collapse away from you in a crash
  • adaptation of car controls involves compromises in design, and some may interfere with the protective features built into the car

Rica research on secondary safety in cars (1998)

In our survey, nearly nine out of ten people said that secondary safety was important to them. With some equipment, safety comes at a price. You need to balance risk against cost. Rica's view at the time of the research was that controls should be designed with good secondary safety. Where this is not possible, you need enough information to be aware of the risk you're incurring.

Here are some 'common-sense' rules taken from our research:

  • avoid push-pull controls or brake levers that have rigid bars or pivots close to your knee, because they could cause injury in a crash
  • avoid adaptations in which bulky equipment is mounted in the footwell
  • avoid devices that will stiffen the steering column and prevent it collapsing progressively in a crash
  • look for designs in which solid parts are protected by padding

(At the time this research was carried out, RiDC was known as Rica.)

Automatic fire extinguishers

Fires in cars are very rare. If a fire does start, you may find it difficult to handle a fire extinguisher, so need to act quickly to get out of the car.

Automatic fire extinguishers are:

  • fitted as a matter of course on all high-tech conversions funded by Motability
  • a good idea for everybody
  • fitted to the car and connected to a plastic tube that runs around the cabin and the engine compartment
  • responsive and when a fire breaks out the tube bursts at the point nearest the fire to let out the extinguishing fluid.
  • available from car adaptation suppliers and fitters


  • are fitted to most new cars and are an integral part of the car's safety system
  • inflate quickly In an accident to protect you by providing a cushion between you and any hard surfaces that may injure you
  • are fitted in the steering wheel and dashboard
  • in the car door or seat to protect you from the side are called side airbags
  • in the foot well preventing you from sliding off the seat in an accident are called knee-bolster airbags

Airbags and adapted controls

There's been some concern about how adapted controls may affect the working of the airbag.
Tests and expert opinion suggest that:

  • Hand controls fitted to the rim of the steering wheel don't stop the bag inflating. The bag should not damage them, although they may get pushed out of place.
  • Joystick controls should not be fitted in front of the airbag, but to one side of it.
  • Rods connecting hand controls to pedals should be close to the steering column and preferably enclosed to keep them out of the way of knee-bolster airbags.
  • It's usually better to leave an airbag in place and switched on even if your controls may get in the way if it inflates.

Airbags and seating position

You could be injured by the airbag if you sit too close to it, though airbags with multi-stage inflation system reduces this risk.
Safety experts recommend:

  • sitting as far back as is practicable
  • if you have an adjustable steering wheel, tilt it down slightly so that the airbag is less likely to hit your head or neck directly

Don't end up in an uncomfortable driving position or one in which you have to strain to use the controls. Check that your driving position does not restrict your view from the car.

Removing or disabling airbags

  • With a small child travelling in the front passenger seat in a child seat, the airbag should be switched off on that side.
  • It's not recommended to remove or disable airbags, unless absolutely necessary.
  • Removing airbags must be done by the dealer who supplied the car or by an approved airbag specialist.
  • The car's manufacturer have information on how airbag removal can be done safely.
IMPORTANT: Check that removing one airbag will not stop other airbags working. You must also tell your insurer.  If an airbag has been removed or deactivated, this may cause problems for the MOT test. To avoid difficulties, you should discuss this with the test centre when booking your MOT.

Last updated: September 2018

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