While experts agree that riding in a vehicle’s regular passenger seat is the safest option, if it’s too difficult or unsafe to transfer someone from their wheelchair into the vehicle, it’s time to look at alternative options. But which options are best, and how do you even know what to look for?
Two organizations doing research and publishing information about the best ways to keep wheelchair users safe while in transit are:
(1) UMTRI — The Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan; and
(2) RESNA — Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America.
This article summarizes some of their advice and includes links to additional resources.
Not all wheelchairs are the same.
The first thing to know is that not all wheelchairs offer the same level of safety in a crash situation. RESNA’s document, RESNA’s Position on Wheelchairs Used as Seats in Motor Vehicles, cites a 2005 study, which found that 6% of respondents reported being injured while traveling seated in their wheelchair. That percentage translates into 3.6 injury events per 100,000 miles traveled — a rate 45 times higher than the injury rate for the general automotive population.
Partly because of studies like this, additional research and development has been done to try and improve the safety standards for wheelchairs being used as seats in vehicles. In May 2000 a Working Group of the RESNA Wheelchair Standards Committee published new standards including one commonly referred to as “WC19.”
WC19-compliant wheelchairs are “transportation ready,” meaning that they include design features that reduce the chance of errors when securing a wheelchair using a four-point, strap-type takedown. In addition, WC19-rated wheelchairs have been tested under crash simulation conditions, and have been shown to provide effective occupant support for the frontal-impact conditions used to test all occupant-restraint systems in passenger vehicles.
UMTRI hosts a resource page featuring three lists of crash-tested products:
- wheelchair seating systems; and
- wheelchair tiedown and occupant restraint systems (WTORS).
Each list covers products that “manufacturers have reported as being successfully crash tested and/or fully compliant with associated ANSI/RESNA and ISO standards.”
WC19-compliant wheelchairs, which are sometimes also called “transit option” wheelchairs, do come with a higher price tag than their non-WC19 counterparts. On average, they can cost between $400 and $1,000 more. Unfortunately, while Medicare and other insurers typically pay for the bulk of the cost of a wheelchair that has been prescribed by a doctor for at-home use, they will not usually cover the additional cost of a transportation-ready model.
“Wheelchair securement” systems: Tiedown and Docking Stations
Whatever kind of wheelchair you have, safely transporting it in a vehicle will require some kind of restraint system to secure the chair in place. There are two main ways to do this:
(1) a tie-down system; or
(2) a docking station.
Either type of system can be installed in the front passenger position, or in a location in the rear of the vehicle.
Tiedown systems (often referred to and WTORS — Wheelchair Tiedown and Occupant Restraint Systems) consist of four straps that are used to secure the chair by connecting the chair’s frame to bolts, brackets, or tracks that have been either mounted or otherwise built into the vehicle.
With this kind of system, someone needs to assist the person in the wheelchair by attaching the hooks on the straps to the appropriate points on the wheelchair, and then cinch them to achieve the appropriate tension to hold the chair firmly in place.
WC19 wheelchairs are designed to include secure places on the chair’s frame for attaching the hooks of the WTORS. For non-WC19 chairs, you have to be careful to only attach the WTORS hooks to appropriate points on the chair, which can withstand the force of an impact. UMTRI has a handy “Ride Safe” guide that provides detailed, illustrated instructions on the correct way to secure a wheelchair using either a WTORS or docking system, along with additional information about how to protect the wheelchair rider by using the appropriate restraint harness.
An alternative to a WTORS is a floor-mounted docking station, which uses brackets that allow the chair to roll into position and lock in place automatically. The lock can be undone by pressing a button that controls an electronic release. This kind of system can be managed by the person in the wheelchair without the assistance of another person, making it much more convenient and also faster.
There is, however, a price for that convenience. While WTORS options start at a few hundred dollars (with more expensive models including additional features like automatic strap cinching or included lap and shoulder restraints), the average cost of a docking system with installation runs approximately $1,500.
When shopping for either of these securement options, you will likely end up working with a distributor who specializes in mobility equipment. You can find such distributors and dealers near you via the online directory provided by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA).
Before you can secure a wheelchair for transport, you must first be able to get it into position inside the vehicle. This is a lot easier in a vehicle that has been modified to feature a built-in ramp, accessible entry door, and lowered floors.
The majority of modified vehicles are minivans, which already have the roomiest interiors and the sliding doors that are best for wheelchair access. There are, however, also SUV model options that some conversion dealers offer.
NMEDA publishes an online list of all the safety-reviewed vehicle conversions available from various providers including Adaptive Mobility Systems, BraunAbility, Vantage Mobility International (VMI), and others. NMEDA’s website also includes a wide variety of consumer resources to help guide you through the buying process. Key reference materials include their 6-step guide to getting started, a dealer locator, and information on funding sources.
Finding the right wheelchair transportation solution will take some work, but there are great resources to help you navigate the journey. Because of all the different options available, figuring out which transportation solution is best for you will take some research. However, as we’ve shared here, there are some great resources available to help you learn more, compare choices, and assess the pros and cons of different alternatives.