Yes, I bought a Jeep
When we find ourselves in rehab after a spinal cord injury, we are all uncertain about what our life will be like in the future, but a common concern is our mobility; will we be able to drive? What vehicle modifications will we need? Can we still enjoy the recreational pursuits planned pre-injury?
A bit about me: my Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) is a T10 incomplete from a staph infection in late 2011, which nearly took me out. Initially, after the spinal surgeries, nothing below the waist moved (bowels included). How much I would recover, as in all SCI’s, was hard to predict so rehab was the key. Four months in Caulfield Rehab got me to the point where I could slide transfer into my wife’s car and escape (woohoo!). Over time, with the support of the Ballarat Health rehab services, I have recovered to the point where I can walk considerable distances, sort of, but proprioception is still poor – a bit like walking on dodgy stilts and relying on visual reference for balance (I fall over if the lights go out).
My pre-SCI car was a Patrol 4WD that I used to tow the horse float with. It had manual transmission and there was a big climb up to the seat, so we knew immediately that it wasn’t going to suit my altered needs. I also realised that I wasn’t going to be able to continue the challenging type of riding I enjoyed with a numb bum, so the horse and all that paraphernalia had to go. However, our intention to do the grey nomad thing in a caravan was still part of my retirement plan, so a replacement 4WD vehicle was needed.
The future caravan was likely to be on the heavy side, with an en-suite to meet my toilet needs and the weight of any special fittings I might need. So, I targeted all the 4WD’s with 3.5 tonne towing capacity, including Land Rover Discovery, Audi Q7, and even the Porsche Cayenne, until reality struck and I recalled that money was a bit tight with no income (getting my job back will be another story).
The Jeep Grand Cherokee was my pick of the affordable options, (I qualified for GST exemption) but we stretched the budget to the top of line Overland model. By doing this we got the power rear door to access a rear space big enough to put the wheelchair in, and air suspension which lowered the car to make getting in and out easier from a standing position. Also a nifty roof rail to hang on to as I tottered from the rear to the drivers door.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to use the driver door for a few months until I regained my licence (Woohoo again!). I did a couple of lessons without hand controls, but it was literally hit and miss when I went for the brake, so hand controls made good sense. I made my own simple set, with an aluminium walking stick and rod attached to the pedals, until SWEP funding came through many months later for my Fadiel wireless thumb operated accelerator unit and manual brake lever. SWEP took some convincing because these aren’t the cheapest options and none had been fitted in Victoria before. I explained, with the support of my Occupational Therapist, that I was doing a lot of things for the first time recently and SWEP should do the same.
" The future caravan was likely to be on the heavy side, with an en-suite to meet my toilet needs and any special equipment I might need"
Ballarat-based vehicle modification specialist, Astec Services P/L installed the hand controls to a high standard of finish. There are no clunky rods and brackets cluttering up the leg space and posing an injury risk in a collision. Astec also managed to avoid interfering with the knee air bag fitted to the driver side of the Jeep.
The Overland model of the Jeep Grand Cherokee has a lot of bells and whistles I wasn’t even aware of at the start, but many of them have proved invaluable, and make driving with hand controls simple and safer. My left hand steers and operates the left side indicator. My right hand operates the accelerator or the brake, and is free to assist with steering. Virtually everything else is automatic – rain sensing wipers, automatic headlights and hi-beam dipper, hands free voice activated phone and Adaptive Cruise Control, which keeps constant distance to the car ahead (brilliant on the freeway to the airport), and blind spot monitoring at the rear corners (good when backing out of parallel parking spots too). It doesn’t take long to familiarise yourself with the operation of the 19 buttons on the steering wheel and all the different warning sounds.
"SWEP funding came through many months later for my Fadiel wireless thumb operated accelerator unit and manual brake lever"
Keyless entry means you just need to have the key in your pocket or bum-bag and never take it out (except to change the key’s battery when the car gives you a message), and the car recognises your key when you approach and automatically sets up the driver seat position (heated and cooled seats by the way!), mirrors, and radio to your settings when you grab the door handle. The seat and steering wheel actually automatically move back when you stop the engine, to make getting in and out easier – great for legs that don’t always want to cooperate. I thought the heated steering wheel was a bit over the top, but I live near Ballarat and I actually use it! My one complaint is the foot operated parking brake, especially as my left foot is not that reliable.
I opted for the 3.0 litre Diesel engine, which has plenty of grunt for towing but is still economical for a vehicle weighing over 2.2 tonne, averaging 9 litre/100km for my mixed highway/town trips. Pulling a caravan that weighs over 3 tonne against a head wind up and down hills makes that more like 17 litre/100km. It can comfortably pass a truck up a decent hill at 110km/hr if necessary.
We bought the Jeep new in November 2012, and so far it has been reliable and done everything asked of it (I have seen YouTube videos of Jeeps performing very well off road but she won’t let me get mud on the tyres). After much market research and reassessment of my physical capabilities status, we lashed out for a new caravan with no special modifications but some challenges for me (try emptying the toilet cassette at the dump point on legs that aren’t cooperating and still avoid splashback!). Erecting the awning was a challenge too, as I can’t climb ladders but we found some steps I feel safe using.
In the winter of 2016, after an initial shake down trip to the Murray, we set off on our first trip in our caravan and headed north, getting as far as Bourke in short hops, staying a couple of nights and taking time to look around the small towns along the way. I chose to leave the wheelchair at home and take the recumbent trike for longer distances beyond my walking range. Looking forward to getting further north this winter – we will use a thermometer to guide us, not a map!