The importance of the vehicle seat’s role in automobile accidents shouldn’t be overlooked, yet it often is. If you run an Internet search, you will find numerous stories on collapsed seat backs, faulty restraint systems and inadequate load bearing ability – all manufacturer-related issues that have contributed to injury or death in automobile crashes.
One area of concern that is overlooked more than most is that of wheelchairs used in lieu of standard seats in vehicles. For those with disabilities, the act of transferring from a wheelchair to a car seat is often difficult and thus prohibitive. Instead, they often choose to purchase a van or other vehicle with the capacity to hold a wheelchair. Either the back seats are removed or the front passenger seat is in order to create a space for the wheelchair.
Vehicles can be modified to allow room for the wheelchair and the addition of special restraints to offer protection in an accident. While these restraints are tested for strength and comfort, they don’t give the wheelchair the same protective properties as originally equipped manufactured seats would.
Keeping in mind that a stock seat is still no guarantee that the person riding in or near it will be safe in an accident, the idea of a wheelchair providing the same degree of protection is faulty. They simply aren’t built to act as car seats. They haven’t been created to withstand the load placed on them and the occupant during a wreck nor to optimize the protective abilities of the restraints.
A common cause of injury during an accident is seat back failure – when the seat is unable to bear the increased load from the force of the impact added to the weight of the occupant, causing it to collapse. The two most common types are either a failure of the seat to maintain an upright position and the deformation of the actual structure. This usually happens after a rear impact that propels the vehicle forward the person backwards, creating strain on the back of the seat. There have been thousands of life-altering traumatic brain injury (TBI) orspinal cord injury (SCI) cases from these failures.
Properly manufactured seats should be able to bear this additional load as well as prevent the occupant from coming into contact with the vehicle’s interior, but too often they don’t measure up.
Now picture a wheelchair encountering those same circumstances. This chair is designed for comfort, ease of transportation and maneuverability – not impact resistance. The Subcommittee on Wheelchairs and Transportation (SOWHAT) has been pushing for better wheelchair standards, ones that will protect a passenger during motor vehicle transportation. They call for an emphasis on “design requirements, test procedures, and performance criteria” that will provide the necessary stability, restraint and strength.
SOWHAT’s earlier efforts in the 1990s to have ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, approve WC-19-Wheelchairs Used as Seats in Motor Vehicles has been approved, but it does not address every issue or concern posed, most notably it does not cover protection from rear impacts or rollovers.
To find out how you can better protect yourself or the wheelchair user in your life, check out the Ride Safe online brochure. They provide step by step instructions on how to best secure a wheelchair and its occupant while in a motor vehicle. They also list tips for selecting a wheelchair and tiedown equipment.