Even though all new vehicles have had some form of seat belt equipped since 1964, the proper securement of wheelchairs in vehicles has undergone little to no study by the U.S. government. Fortunately for spinal cord injury (SCI) survivors and other wheelchair users, task action groups (and universities) have stepped up to do the research about wheelchair transportation safety standards for them.
The Restraint Systems Task Group of the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Adaptive Devices Subcommittee (SAE ADSC) and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute together have conducted in-depth research on the proper way to secure a wheelchair in a motor vehicle, from looking at the wheelchair tie down straps and the docking stations to making sure you choose a crash-tested wheelchair. They’ve also crash-tested wheelchairs on the market to see which are the safest for riding in motor vehicles.
Additionally, University of Michigan researchers also teamed up with their counterparts at the University of Pittsburgh to conduct additional research. According to one study that was published in 2013:
“Usability and accessibility issues related to seat belt and automated (docking) wheelchair securement technology were revealed, suggesting that wheelchair-seated occupants travel with a higher risk of serious injury in vehicle crashes than front-row occupants seated in original equipment manufacturer (OEM) vehicle seats and using OEM seat belts.”
Automobile accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries. After an SCI, it’s critical to ensure your safety on the road when you’re driving while seated in your wheelchair. While we all know it’s safest to transfer into a standard equipped seat of a vehicle, that’s not always possible. Read on to learn more about some of the wheelchair securement methods that are most commonly used.
Wheelchair Securement Option 1: Manual Tie Downs
Wheelchair tie downs are the original wheelchair securement method. Created as soon as accessible buses and vans were put into action in the 1980s, this old-school securement method is still the standard used on many city buses across the country, as well as used by many individuals who still have the dexterity to use them on their own (they’re also popular with caregivers). And they work great.
There are several tie downs available from different manufacturers. Here is a list of restraints that have been tested and approved by the University of Michigan's Wheelchair Transportation Safety site.
Wheelchair Securement Option 2: Wheelchair Docking Systems
Wheelchair docking systems are a newer form of securing a wheelchair while in a motor vehicle. This type of system allows wheelchair users to be completely independent when driving since it is a bolt system. All you do is drive your wheelchair into the spot on the floor where the docking system base is, and a bolt (which is affixed to your wheelchair) underneath your wheelchair locks securely into the base.
Then there are several different manufacturers that make approved wheelchair docking systems. Q'Straint, Sure-Lok and EZ Lock are the top three. We’ve also linked to a full list of the crash-tested wheelchair docking systems for your reference.
Other Safety Measures
Transportation is a necessity of modern day life. It's up to you as a wheelchair-user to ensure your safety. Here are a few other safety considerations:
- Choose a Crash-Tested Wheelchair. Many people don't even think to check whether their wheelchair has also been crash-tested for safety in a motor vehicle. This is something that these organizations also test, and they’ve extensively tested many of the power and manual wheelchairs on the market.
When researchers tested the wheelchairs, they discovered that open front armrests are safest, as well as using headrests and a high back-rest for rear-impact protection. Here is a list of the wheelchairs they crash-tested.
- Use a Seat Belt. Make sure you use the seat belts from your vehicle's manufacturer and attach them to seat belt extenders (attached to a track on the floor) so that you can still use them while sitting in your wheelchair. Also, make sure you use both a lap belt and shoulder strap since they have been shown to help extensively in a crash. The seat belt on your wheelchair or any velcro straps you may use is not sufficient in a crash.
- Positioning Your Wheelchair. Lastly, make sure you position yourself in the safest way possible if you're driving while seated in your wheelchair. This means pull forward into your docking system until you hear an indication that your wheelchair has been secured. You also should make sure you’re not extremely close to your hand controls, as they can injure you in an accident.
Wheelchair safety and securement while traveling to any location is incredibly important. While this all may seem difficult, the peace of mind you'll have when you know you’re using a properly tested securement system (and a wheelchair) makes it all worth it.
Written by Tiffiny CarlsonSince 1998, Tiffiny Carlson has been a prolific commentator on all things SCI in a number of prominent magazines, blogs and websites. Hailing from Minnesota, she was the SCI Columnist for New Mobility Magazine for 13 years and she currently works as the Executive Director of SPINALpedia, one of the leading websites for people with SCI to share videos and stories. She has been a C5-6 quadriplegic since a diving accident 24 years ago. Tiffiny has also been a fierce advocate for SCI research. In 2016, the Morton Paralysis Fund honored her for her work. While all SCI topics interest her, dating, love and the business of relationships have always been where her passion lies the most.
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