UAMS/UA Occupational Therapy Program Seeks Funding for a Driving Simulator

By David Wise

It also is a complex activity that requires a combination of cognitive, perceptual and motor skills. For individuals who have experienced an injury, illness or disability that affects their ability to drive, occupational therapy plays a crucial role in helping them regain their independence and mobility.

One of the innovative tools that occupational therapists are increasingly using is driving simulators. These advanced systems offer a safe and controlled environment for clients to practice and improve their driving skills.

The Doctoral Occupational Therapy Program, a joint offering of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, is currently seeking funding for a driving simulator. The simulator would be used by the program’s students, by the faculty for research, by the UAMS Outpatient Therapy Clinic for direct patient care and by the UAMS Schmieding Center for Senior Health and Education for client programs.

“Incorporating the use of driving simulation into the program’s curriculum would have an impact on the depth and breadth of the education of future occupational therapists in Arkansas,” said Susan Long, Ed.D., dean of the UAMS College of Health Professions. “The equipment would also be utilized to train those already in practice through continuing professional education as well as to support scientific inquiry through faculty research. Being located at the UAMS Northwest Campus, the equipment would have a significant impact on the therapy offered to clients at the UAMS Outpatient Therapy Clinic, as well as the UAMS Schmieding Center for Senior Health and Education.”

Examples of people who benefit from this type of therapy include those with autism, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson disease, stroke, as well those with advanced age. Here are some of the key benefits of using driving simulators in occupational therapy.

Safe and Controlled Environment

Driving simulators provide a risk-free environment to practice driving without the dangers associated with being on the road. This is particularly beneficial for individuals who are new to driving or those who need to relearn driving skills after an injury or illness. The simulator can replicate various driving conditions, including different weather conditions, traffic scenarios and road types, allowing clients to gain experience and confidence in a controlled setting before transitioning to real-world driving.

Customizable Training Programs

One of the significant advantages of driving simulators is the ability to customize the training programs to each person’s specific needs and abilities. Occupational therapists can adjust the difficulty level, driving scenarios and feedback mechanisms to meet the individual requirements of each person.

Real-Time Feedback and Assessment

Driving simulators offer real-time feedback and assessment features that allow occupational therapists to monitor performance closely. The simulator can track various aspects of driving, such as steering control, speed management, lane keeping and reaction times, providing immediate feedback. This real-time assessment enables therapists to identify areas of improvement and make necessary adjustments to the training program, ensuring continuous progress and skill development.

Cognitive and Motor Skill Development

Engaging with a driving simulator can help improve cognitive and motor skills, which are essential for safe driving. The simulator requires people to multitask, make quick decisions and react to various stimuli, which can enhance cognitive abilities such as attention, memory and executive function. Additionally, practicing driving in a simulated environment can improve motor skills, coordination and muscle strength, helping people develop the physical capabilities required for driving.

For many individuals, the thought of returning to driving after an injury or illness can be daunting and overwhelming. Driving simulators can help build confidence by allowing someone to practice and master driving skills in a supportive and encouraging environment.

Kandy Salter, OTD, director of the Doctor of Occupational Therapy program, has specialized in driver rehabilitation for almost a decade. She previously practiced in the UAMS Outpatient Therapy Clinic in Fayetteville, where she served many clients who were experiencing mobility challenges. This inspired her to create a clinical driving program for the clinic in 2015 that continues to be the only option for clinical driving evaluation in Northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri and eastern Oklahoma.

“A driving simulator would be a game changer for the UAMS/UA OT program,” Salter said. “We would be the only program in the state with this level of technology, and our graduates would leave the program with an understanding of driving assessment and treatment for clinical practice, making them stand out from the competition in the job market. It would also enhance our connection with the community in providing services for the underserved population who otherwise could not access such services.”

Steven Wheeler, Ph.D., OTR/L, incoming head of the UA Communication Disorders and Occupational Therapy department, agrees. Wheeler has experienced first-hand the contributions of a driving simulator to occupational therapy student education and patient care while serving as department chair of the Division of Occupational Therapy at the West Virginia University School of Medicine.

Wheeler said, “While representing an important symbol of personal freedom and adult role participation in our society, driving involves inherent safety risks to the individual and others, which can be accentuated by health conditions that impact the skills necessary for safe and effective motor vehicle operation. A driving simulator will provide our occupational therapy students, faculty and community partners with valuable educational, clinical, and research opportunities to better support driver competence for Arkansans across the lifespan prior to higher-risk on-road assessment and intervention.”

Using driving simulators in occupational therapy can be a cost-effective alternative to traditional driving rehabilitation programs. The initial investment in a driving simulator may be high, but it can reduce the overall costs associated with in-car training, vehicle modifications, and potential risks and liabilities. Additionally, the flexibility and scalability of driving simulators allow therapists to work with multiple clients simultaneously, maximizing the use of resources and providing more individuals with access to quality driving rehabilitation services.

For more information on how you could help fund a driving simulator for the OT program, email Becca Bradley at