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Wheelchair Trailer Towing Vehicle Modifications

What is a Wheelchair Trailer and What Makes Them Different from other Vehicle Modifications?

A wheelchair trailer is a small single axle trailer built for the purpose of transporting a power wheelchair or scooter.  The trailer is attached to a hitch receiver by a ball coupling and is pulled behind the towing vehicle.  The weight of the trailer is typically less than 400lbs, a small trailer in the world of trailers.  The wheelchair weight can vary, typically between 150-350lbs.  There are several reasons why wheelchair trailers are unique in the world of vehicle modifications for the handicapped and people with disabilities. 



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What should I look for in a Towing Vehicle?

Realistically, most consumer would not buy a vehicle with the intention of using it for towing a wheelchair trailer.  More likely, the consumer tried various other wheelchair lifts or transport devices on their existing car and for a variety of reasons they weren't compatible with the vehicle, the wheelchair, or the operator.  A wheelchair trailer is often the last option and in most cases it's either the trailer, nothing, or the purchase of a different car.  Then it becomes more a task of making sure your existing car can safely tow the wheelchair trailer.  In that case the above list would be used to check your existing car.  

I have a Small Car, Can I Safely use a Wheelchair Trailer?

Please refer to your vehicle's owner's manual, consult with the wheelchair trailer manufacturer, and see the webpage Towing Capacity and Wheelchair Trailer Vehicle Modifications for more information.

Example 1: Can a 2011 Ford Focus Safely tow a wheelchair trailer?

As an example. let's look at a 2011 Ford Focus.  The owner's manual says "WARNING: Never tow a trailer with this vehicle. Your vehicle is not equipped to tow. No towing packages are available through an authorized dealer."  To me that means no you should not tow a wheelchair trailer with this vehicle.  Find a towing vehicle that is more appropriate for towing. 

If I'm Operating the Wheelchair Trailer, what will I have to do?

To use a wheelchair trailer, the user or attendant will need to be strong enough to:

What are the Main Advantages and Disadvantages to using a Wheelchair Trailer?



How Should a Wheelchair Trailer be properly installed?

Hitching Systems

The trailer towing industry has a system that classifies hitches according to the amount of weight they can tow and their tongue load rating.  You'll need to ensure that the hitch installed on your vehicle at a minimum has the towing capacity to handle your loaded wheelchair trailer.  Often the hitch will have more towing capacity than is required by the wheelchair trailer.  If the maximum trailer weight rating of the towing vehicle falls between the maximum towing capacity of two hitches, the larger hitch should be installed with the understanding that the maximum gross trailer weight that you can safely tow is determined by the vehicle and not the hitch.  Please see the webpage Towing Capacity and Wheelchair Trailer Vehicle Modifications for more information.

Adjust the height of the tow vehicle/trailer interface

Most trailers and tow vehicles should be level to one another, i.e. parallel to the ground during travel.  This can be achieved by adjusting the height of the ball mount on the towing vehicle with an appropriate drawbar.  The height can be adjusted up or down to accommodate the wheelchair trailer within reason.

Wiring Systems

Federal law requires trailers to have taillights, brake lights, side marker lights, turn signals, and side and rear reflectors. Some trailers also have backup lights. To provide power to these lights, a four-way or more connector is hooked into the towing vehicle’s electrical system.  Turning on the towing vehicle’s headlights should result in the trailer’s running lights coming on.  The brake lights will need to be checked by pressing and releasing the towing vehicle's brake pedal and ensuring the wheelchair trailer's brake lights come on and off.  Many towing vehicle manufacturers offer a 7-way connector that includes provision for an electric brake signal power supply, and backup lights, in addition to the typical four-way functions. 

When are Separate Trailer Brakes Required for my Wheelchair Trailer?

Every state has its own laws governing when a separate trailer braking system is required by law.  You'll need to visit the website or contact the DOT/DMV of the state in which you live or the states in which you will be traveling in to know when by law you are required to have separate trailer brakes.  But the law is only half of the answer. 

The towing vehicle manufacturer will also have recommendations and requirements that you need to follow concerning when separate trailer brakes are required.   Sometimes the manufacturer of the towing vehicle will specify that separate functional trailer brakes should be used for trailers where the Gross Combined Weight GCW of the towing vehicle plus the trailer exceed the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating GVWR of the towing vehicle.  This makes sense because the towing vehicle's brakes are only rated and required by NHTSA to stop the GVWR load.  It does however leave it up to the consumer to figure out if their GCW is near GVWR for the towing vehicle.  Other manufacturers will simply state for example that trailer brakes are recommended for trailers over 1,000 lbs, and required for trailers in excess of 2,000 lbs (the exact numbers dependent on the vehicle).  You really need to look at your towing vehicle's owner's manual for specifics

What are Trailer Safety Chains?

Safety chains are the last defense from causing serious injuries or death if for whatever reason your wheelchair trailer should ever become detached from the towing vehicle.  If that should happen safety chains will allow the trailer to remain attached long enough for you to pull over and correct the situation.  The hitch must have provisions for the connection of safety chains, they should not be attached to the bumper of the towing vehicle.  Most states will require safety chains on a trailer but regardless they should always be used.   To properly install, connect the trailer safety chains to the hook retainers on the hitch.  Trailer safety chains should have some slack to permit sharp turns but should not drag on the road. In addition, trailer safety chains need to be be crossed under the trailer tongue to help prevent the tongue from dropping to the road in the event the wheelchair trailer does separate from the towing vehicle.


Frequently Asked Questions About Wheelchair Trailers

How can I determine how much load my wheelchair trailer can safely carry?  The amount of load that the wheelchair trailer can safely carry is found as well on the Tire Label, which is permanently mounted near the Safety Compliance Certification Label mentioned above.  Locate the statement on the label that says ‘‘The weight of cargo should never exceed XXX kg or XXX lbs.’’  NHTSA also requires the owner's manual to contain a section ‘‘Steps for Determining Correct Load Limit—." 

How can I find my wheelchair trailer's Gross Vehicle Weight Rating GVWR and Gross Axle Weight Rating GAWR?  The GVWR is printed on a label or placard, the Safety Compliance Certification Label which contains the VIN, which is mounted on the forward half of the left front side of the trailer, typically within 6 inches of the floor line, or near the trailer coupler.

How can I find the correct tire inflation pressure for my wheelchair trailer's tires?  The correct tire inflation pressure is printed on a label, the Tire Label, which is permanently mounted near the Safety Compliance Certification Label mentioned above.  This and much more information on tire maintenance and care is required by NHTSA to be contained in the owner's manual. 

Do I have to register my wheelchair trailer?  You should contact your local DOT/DMV.  Trailers are considered motor vehicles.  This may not seem obvious to most people since they are missing a motor.  Generally you follow the same process you would if you were registering a car.

If I purchase a wheelchair trailer, can I still park in handicap parking areas?  Typically no, the trailer will stick out into traffic.  The towing vehicle and wheelchair trailer will take up two parking spaces.  As long as you can find a parking spot, typically the distance from the building is not a problem because you'll be riding the scooter or wheelchair from your car to the building and not walking.   Also, if you live in an apartment building, you'll want to make sure your parking arrangements are settled with your manager before purchasing. 






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