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Wheelchair Safety when Riding in a Car

Proper wheelchair tiedowns

Can you guess what could be wrong with this picture?

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  1. Notice how the occupant safety belt goes around and over the wheelchair frame as well as wheelchair rear wheel.  You can see the gap between the belt and the occupant's body.  It's not snug around the hips so the occupant can "submarine" under the belt or it will cut into her abdomen in a vehicle crash (literally not figuratively, blood, guts and all).  Because it is not snug, she isn't well restrained so she will move and whiplash more in a crash.  Since the safety belt is going around the wheelchair frame and wheelchair rear wheel, they're more prone to break in a vehicle crash.  The belt will repeatedly wrap around the wheelchair frame and the webbing could become damaged, causing failure in a crash.  Also the forces exerted on the belt will be more concentrated which could again lead to failure.
  2. If the occupant is able to walk or transfer with assistance, then they should be secured in a vehicle's OEM seat.  A person shouldn't be riding in their minivan in their wheelchair unless they cannot or it is unsafe to transfer.  Consult with a driver rehabilitation specialist to make that determination.  The vehicle's OEM seat is crash tested and meets all federal safety standards.  A person will be much safer riding in a standard vehicle seat.   Just look at the manual wheelchair's seatback and compare it to the OEM seat backs and how thick they are and you should realize that there really is no comparison in safety between the two choices.  See how the OEM seat has a headrest and the manual wheelchair does not.  Try to imagine the occupant's head movement in a severe braking situation or even a minor accident, not to mention a full crash.  So if the woman pictured is elderly and uses the wheelchair because they walk slowly, tire easily over medium to long distances, or are prone to loosing their balance and falling, then with the aid of an attendant, they should be able to transfer into a vehicle's OEM passenger seat (all those nice empty seats in the back).    
  3. Also just a guess, but related to number 2 above, is that it's highly unlikely that a manual chair is ANSI/RESNA WC-19 compliant to withstand the forces in a vehicle crash.  They do exist but there just aren't that many out there.  You can watch crash videos on the web where a non ANSI/RESNA WC-19 compliant manual wheelchair falls apart in a sled test.  It's the first video.

Some points to remember:

  1. Your wheelchair is not a NHTSA crash tested vehicle seat
  2. Your wheelchair is not a NHTSA crash tested vehicle seat
  3. Your wheelchair is not a NHTSA crash tested vehicle seat

 

Why am I repeating myself?  Because that obvious fact is either not understood or is forgotten by many in the accessible van industry and is almost certainly not understand by many wheelchair users.  I don't think there is conspiracy out there, it's just something that most people people either don't think about or just accept.  I also think itís a case where people have been involved with accessible vans for so long; they assume you know what they do.  But I strongly feel that the consumer should have all the information to make an informed decision and this includes talking about wheelchair safety.  Maybe a little bit of the industry's reluctance to talk about the subject is also that dealers and vendors are trying to sell you something and talking about crashes and what the body goes through in a vehicle crash is not good salesmanship.  When one companyís slogan asks you to "Imagine the Possibilities", Iím sure a bloody vehicle crash is not what theyíre talking about.  Although the law allows someone to be seated in their wheelchair in a motor vehicle, NHTSA has never put out a definition of what a wheelchair is much less what is a ďsafeĒ wheelchair to ride in.  Technically speaking you could ride around in one of those antique wooden wheelchairs you sometimes see in wheelchair provider demo rooms.  So letís look at your vehicleís original seats.  They are manufactured to meet crash test requirements.  The materials used in the construction of the seat have to meet certain other federal requirements.  The headrest itself has to meet certain other federal requirements.  The seatbelts also have to meet even more federal requirements.  Lots of requirements, huh?  There also might be state requirements as well.  All these requirements are found in federal laws that NHTSA is tasked with enforcing.  All these requirements keep our cars and the driving public relatively safe.  Thatís important because vehicle crashes involve not just you and your car but others on the rode.  Maybe you have different feelings on this matter, but I donít want to drive my car with my kids on the same rode as an uncertified car you built in your garage.  I personally like these requirements but of course when it comes to wheelchairs these requirements are noticeably missing.  So what are we to do?  This is where we have to put on our thinking caps a bit.  But first, go and find your wheelchair manual in that hall closet or spare room.  Dust it off and read it.  Notice that part that says ďWe the wheelchair manufacture do not think that it is safe to ride in a car sitting in this wheelchair.  We absolve ourselves of any responsibility (legal, financial, etc.) from your not heeding our warning!Ē Of course it will be in better legalese but you get the point.  All wheelchair manuals have this type of language in them and most users never realize it.          

 

Should people not ride in wheelchairs because they are not crash tested?  No, NO, and NO!  The whole point of the 49CFR595 Make Inoperative Exemption is to allow people with disabilities to be able to use vehicles like the general public.  We shouldnít lock ourselves in a closet because the world is a dangerous place.  At the same time, IF you must ride in a car from a wheelchair, you should use a wheelchair that is as safe as possible AND only if it is absolutely required.  You shouldn't be riding in your vehicle in your wheelchair unless you cannot transfer to a vehicle's OEM seat.  And you should educate yourself and and caregivers on the safe way to properly restrain both the wheelchair and the wheelchair occupant.

 

ANSI/RESNA WC-19: A Voluntary Standard for Wheelchair Safety

ANSI/RESNA WC19 logo for ticket to ride safely while being transported in your wheelchair

So letís talk about ANSI/RESNA WC-19, http://www.rercwts.org/WC19.html.  WC-19 is a voluntary industry standard for designing and manufacturing a wheelchair that will be used as a seat in a motor vehicle. A WC-19 wheelchair has:

 

After the wheelchair tiedowns and occupant restraint systems (WTORS) became standardized with the release of SAE J2249, the wheelchair became the weakest link in ensuring the safety of wheelchair occupants.  A WC-19 wheelchair is the best option if youíre looking at sitting from your wheelchair while in a vehicle.  But here are some problems with WC-19 that you should be aware of:

 

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