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Among the most complex subjects relating to mobility products is occupied wheelchair transport - that is, riding in your wheelchair in a motor vehicle.  After all, it's tough enough surviving an automobile accident unscathed while in standard vehicle seating, so imagine the potential consequences of riding in a wheelchair in an automobile if not properly secured with a transit kit.  However, by understanding official policy, voluntary standards, and real-world applications relating to occupied wheelchair transit kits, you, as a consumer, can better understand the subject and how it relates to your safety and comfort during transport.

From a governmental perspective, it's vital to note that the Department of Transportation does not approve or regulate occupied wheelchair transport.  As such, any "standards" are established and followed on a voluntary basis by manufacturers, agencies, and individuals beyond any governmental regulation of occupied wheelchair transport.

There is a voluntary standard establish by ANSI/RESNA within the policy of WC Volume 1, Section 19 (commonly called WC-19), adopted in 2000, that specifies the equipment, testing, and means required for proper transport of an occupied wheelchair in a motor vehicle.  In conjunction with WC-19, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), addresses "the design and performance of wheelchair tie down and occupant restraint systems (WTORS)," in its recommended practices document, J2294.

Specifically, WC-19 standards dictate the design and location of tie-down points on a wheelchair; the types of securement straps used; the location of tie-down points on the vehicle's floor; the occupant restraint system (seat belt); and the testing protocol to prove that a manufacturer's wheelchair model and complete restraint system meets the standard.  In short, the standard says precisely how to properly secure an occupied wheelchair for transport in a vehicle.

In accordance with WC-19 standards, wheelchair manufacturers have optional "transit kits" for some models.  Transit kits typically feature front and rear tie-down loops secured to the wheelchair frame, as well as pelvic belt mounting points for a 3-point occupant restraint.  Most importantly, transit-ready wheelchair models undergo formal frontal-impact crash testing, where the wheelchair is secured to a crash-test sled via the transit kit, occupied with a crash test dummy, and driven head-on into a frontal impact at approximately 30mph, simulating a vehicle collision (additional lateral stability testing is performed, as well, simulating the motion of a swerving or tipping vehicle).  The test - which is typically performed at the University of Michigan - is video taped and analyzed, ensuring that the wheelchair remained in tact, and that the dummy's movements during impact were controlled well enough by the occupant restraint system as to not cause injury, upon which passing results are achieved.

As a consumer, it's important to note that not all wheelchair models are available with a crash-tested transit kit. Some wheelchair models and configurations simply aren't available with a transit kit option, while others only offer "unoccupied wheelchair securement points," so the availability and compatibility of an original equipment transit kit should be discussed with a provider when selecting a new wheelchair if occupied wheelchair transport is foreseen.  However, most insurers will not fund a transit kit, so the approximately $400 cost is usually the consumer's out-of-pocket expense

Beyond crash-tested wheelchairs, there are a number of aftermarket securement kits available, where third-party manufacturers work with van conversion companies to install universal bracketry on virtually any manual or power wheelchair, known as "power docking devices."  For those who drive from their wheelchairs, unable to independently use traditional tie-down loops, these types of system - known by the names EZ Lock and Q'Straint, as well as Permobil's Permolock - permanently mount a pin on the bottom of the wheelchair, and a docking station on the vehicle's floor, allowing the wheelchair to roll in and automatically lock securely without the use of tie-down straps.

Although the Department of Transportation has never approved an occupied wheelchair transit system or protocol, clearly some users elect to be transported in their wheelchairs in private and public vehicles.  If you have such a need, selecting a crash-tested wheelchair and transit kit, or adding an aftermarket docking station, certainly increases safety when correctly used.  Look at it this way:  In a standard vehicle seat, you're expected to buckle-up, so when riding in your wheelchair in a vehicle, make a wise decision by tying-down.

Published 7/07, Copyright 2007, WheelchairJunkie.com