Accessible Vehicle Roundup: Get In, Buckle Down and Go!

Entering your vehicle easily and getting seated safely

Article Highlights:
  • Quest's annual accessible vehicle roundup takes a closer look at some of the basic equipment that people with disablities need to keep them safe in an adapted vehicle: ramps, lifts, transfer seats and tie-down systems.
  • The article also includes an interactive slideshow, with a focus on specific manufacturers and their featured products that can keep people with mobility impairments in the driver's seat — or in the passenger's.
by Richard Senti on July 1, 2013 - 9:21am

Quest Vol. 20, No. 3

As our regular readers know, Quest magazine takes a look annually at what’s new and exciting in the accessible vehicle industry. This year, we’d like to focus on the early stages of automotive travel in a wheelchair: entering your vehicle and getting safely situated. We’re going to take a closer look at ramps, lifts, transfer seats and tie-down systems.

Going up

A Closer Look: Slideshow

Wheelchair users generally need to enter and exit at ground level. Full-size accessible vans and pickup trucks often solve this problem with a lift, which is essentially a personal elevator. A platform lowers down flush to the ground, and the wheelchair user navigates onto it. Using hydraulics and electronics, the platform is raised to the van’s or truck’s interior floor level, allowing the rider to move easily into the van.

Minivans, which don’t ride as high as full-size vans, are generally accessed with a ramp. Of course, there are the portable fold-up ramps that fit on just about any minivan (and also can be used to access buildings and go up curbs), but for the purposes of this article, we’ll be looking at conversion vehicles with attached ramps integrated into the vehicle’s design. There are many variations of this type of ramp, but most are either fold-out or in-floor designs. Both are aptly named: The fold-out ramp is usually hinged across the middle and generally is stored vertically (folded in half) just inside the vehicle’s door. The in-floor designs are stored within the vehicle’s floor structure and telescope out and down for accessing the van.

Conversion van buyers often have the choice of either power or manual ramps. The power versions are battery operated and remotely activated, while the counterbalanced manual models are easily deployed by hand. Many conversion vans offer a “kneeling” system in which the vehicle’s suspension is temporarily lowered to bring the wheelchair entry door closer to street level, decreasing the incline of the ramp for easier access.

Can you transfer?

In shopping for an accessible vehicle, the first and perhaps most important question you must answer is: Can I transfer from my wheelchair into a car seat? No matter how you answer, there will be plenty of options, but they’ll be decidedly different.

Let’s say you can’t transfer from your wheelchair, but you do have upper body strength and mobility. With the conventional driver’s seat removed and replaced with a customized package of specialized hand controls, you could navigate your wheelchair up a ramp and right into place behind the steering wheel, secure your chair in place (more on tie-downs later) and be your own chauffeur (with the proper training, of course).

Some vans offer modular seating systems, allowing either of the front seats to be easily unlocked and rolled out, making room for a wheelchair. With wheelchair securement systems in both areas, your wheelchair locks down in place of the removed conventional seat. Want to drive? Fine. Want to ride shotgun? No problem.

If you are able to transfer laterally from your wheelchair to another seat, you have another set of options from which to choose. Being able to transfer allows you to use a transfer seat, either inside or outside your vehicle. Here’s an inside transferring scenario: You navigate your wheelchair into the center area of your van (behind the front seats). Your transfer seat (driver or passenger) powers back into the center area, then swivels inward allowing you to easily align your wheelchair next to it. After transferring into the vehicle seat, you simply reverse the process and you’re ready to ride. In addition to the forward/backward and left/right swivel movements, some transfer seats also offer up/down adjustments. The up/down function would be especially useful with a driver’s seat, allowing you to adjust your height to the optimal steering position.

Another approach is to do the transferring outside the vehicle. First, you stop your wheelchair next to the open front door of your vehicle (driver or passenger) and with a remote control, activate the vehicle’s transfer seat: It swivels sideways, out and down to wheelchair level. Once you’ve transferred, you reverse the process back up into the vehicle, buckle up and you’re ready to go.

Truckin’ tricks

Visit Motor Trend magazine’s road tests of four wheelchair conversion vans. The magazine takes a detailed look at the Chrysler Town and Country and Toyota Sienna from Braun Ability, and the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna from VMI.

Of course, with the just-described transfer scenarios, a second person is needed to deal with the wheelchair you just left behind, stowing it somewhere in or on your vehicle. To travel solo, consider a truck rig that, once you’ve transferred to the driver’s seat, enables a remote-controlled power arm mounted in the truck bed to reach down and lift your chair up and into the bed.

Another approach to solo driving, for someone who chooses not to transfer, also involves a pickup truck. Several companies make essentially the same thing, but in decidedly different manners: Basically, the driver’s door, via remote control, is moved out of the way, making room for a power lift to slide out and down, flush with the ground. The wheelchair driver navigates onto the lift platform; then reactivates the remote control to elevate back up and into place behind the truck’s hand controls as the door closes. (This system also can be installed on the passenger side.)

Lock down

If you sit in your wheelchair while in the vehicle, you need to fasten it securely to the floor. In conversion vans, the tie-down system already should be in place.

The least-expensive tiedowns incorporate a series of heavy-duty web straps, complete with metal hooks, rings and buckles requiring manual cinching. Four wheelchair securement straps are anchored to special metal tie-down tracks bolted solidly into the vehicle’s floor structure.

A more expensive (but more convenient) securement option incorporates four automatic retractors, which simplify and speed up the tie-down procedure. It’s still a manual operation, but the four retractors present a neater package by cutting down considerably on the strapping and hardware needed. If your vehicle is equipped with a basic straps-and-hooks system, you could trade up to a retractor system because they both anchor into the same floor tracks. Both of these manual systems require a second person to facilitate the tie-down.

The quickest and easiest method of securing a wheelchair is an electronic docking system. If this sounds expensive, you’re right — compared to the basic hooks-and-straps method above. However, if you’ll be getting in and out of your vehicle a lot — and especially if you’ll be driving solo — it’s money well spent. No straps, hooks or retractors are involved. The wheelchair is centered over the docking base bolted to the vehicle floor and an interfacing heavy-duty docking pin bracketed under the chair is guided into place by a V-shaped opening in the base, until the pin is captured by locking steel “jaws.” An electronic monitoring system, with a dashboard-mounted display, signals whether or not you’re locked safely in place.

Keep in mind that getting your wheelchair secured to your vehicle doesn’t mean that you are also secure. New conversion vehicles should have both wheelchair securement systems and occupant restraints already in place. But if you’re doing the converting yourself, remember to install combination (lap and shoulder) belts that tie into your floor tracks and also into the sidewall of your vehicle.

In shopping for an accessible vehicle, it’s highly recommended that you check it out in person with the wheelchair you’ll be using to travel. Rehearse the entire entering and exiting procedure: deploying and moving up the ramp or lift, positioning your wheelchair for travel, and securing it (and you) in place. Then reverse the procedure to exit the vehicle. You’ll have to repeat this routine every time you use the vehicle, so be sure to find a system that’s easy to use, comfortable and — most importantly — safe.

Easy configuration of minivan seats

VMI’s new Toyota Sienna Northstar conversion minivan sports an in-floor ramp and a hydraulic kneeling system that lowers the vehicle, reducing the ramp angle to 8 degrees. The roomy interior space offers extra headroom and allows a large power chair to easily maneuver into place. The wheelchair user can choose to be the driver or the front-seat passenger. Quick-release straps make easy work of rolling out either of the lightweight front seats, making way for the wheelchair. Two backup systems allow the ramp to operate in the event of a power failure. Conversions start at $23,200 MRSP. Vantage Mobility International, (800) 348-8267.

Giving full-size vans a lift

With full-size vans being higher off the ground, lifts, rather than ramps, are often the better access choice. The BraunAbility Under Vehicle Lift (UVL) is designed to stow below, as its name implies, without infringing on precious interior space. As shown in the inset photo on the left, the UVL, when summoned with its controller, moves out from its under-floor storage space and down, flush to the ground. After maneuvering onto the lift, the wheelchair user elevates to the van’s interior floor height and then moves on into the vehicle. The up/down movements of the UVL are hydraulic, while the in/out movements are electrically controlled. Price: $10,000. BraunAbility, (800) 488-0359.

Easy interior transferring

An interior transfer seat allows a person to shift from a wheelchair into the driver’s (or front passenger’s) seat. B&D Independence transfer seats have a 20-inch forward/backward range; a 6½-inch height adjustment, and a 100-degree swivel range. With the transfer seat in its far-back position and swiveled perpendicular to the driving position, the wheelchair user, after navigating into the central area behind the front seats, can slide easily into place. The power toggle switches are mounted by the seat as shown at left or an optional remote control is available. These seats can be found in the following minivan conversions: Chrysler Town & Country; Dodge Grand Caravan; Honda Odyssey; Toyota Sienna; and Volkswagen Routan. Base price: $2,500. B&D Transfer Seats, (619) 263-3904.

Ultimate in driving independence

This swivel seat/wheelchair lift combo from Bruno offers a person who can drive and transfer the ultimate in independence. A push of a button brings the Valet seat out and down — turning 90 degrees in the process. After transferring from his wheelchair, the driver activates the Out-Rider lift mounted in the truck bed: the lift arm swings out and around, deploying the cable which attaches to a special dock on the wheelchair. The chair is lifted up and into the bed of the truck. The driver is lifted up and into the cab. And away he goes. The truck shown here is a Ford F-150, but the Valet swivel seat ($6,890) and Out-Rider PUL-1100 lift ($3,400) can be installed in a wide variety of makes and models. Visit Bruno to locate a dealer in your area, or check local phone listings.

No-transfer truckin’

All-Terrain Conversions transforms any General Motors extended or crew cab pickup truck (2008 or newer) into wheelchair-accessible vehicles requiring no transferring. The doors are reconfigured and hinged at the top so they “gull-wing” up and out of the way, allowing a wheelchair lift to slide out from the driver’s (or front passenger’s) position, then down flush to the ground. The wheelchair user navigates onto the lift and elevates up, then into position — ready to travel. A single remote control handles all these functions. The entire process takes around 20 seconds. Conversions start at $21,900 MSRP. All-Terrain Conversions, (260) 758-2525.

New concept docking system

The Hightower Docking Console offers a new approach to docking a power chair securely in place in either the driver or front passenger areas. Instead of requiring a downward facing docking pin attached under the power chair, the Hightower system mounts its mating bracket to the underneath side of the wheelchair seat. Docking is accomplished when the wheelchair driver navigates into place, with the mating bracket sliding into the locking shaft of the center console (see close-up photo, left ) which has been bolted to the vehicle’s floor structure. The wheelchair is then electronically locked securely in place. Chair release is activated with the push of a button. Due out by summer’s end, the Hightower will be “priced competitively” with other electronic docking systems. Hightower Docking Console, (619) 263-3904.

Combo wheelchair dock and seatbelt system

Q’Straint has designed a system that allows power chair users to electronically lock down their chair and secure their seat belts at the same time. The Drive-in Occupant Restraint (DiOR) essentially suspends the lap belt and shoulder harness in place, allowing the wheelchair user to literally drive into the occupant restraints. Numerous adjustments can be made to customize the belts’ positions to conform to the driver and his or her power chair. The electronic lock-down system includes the docking base bolted to the van floor (see inset photo at left) directly beneath the chair’s traveling position. A matching, downward facing docking pin mounted under the chair is guided into the V-shaped opening and is captured by the dock’s steel jaws, securing the power chair in place. See dealer for pricing. Q’Straint, (800) 987-9987.

Rear-entry ramp van

The Vision line of wheelchair-accessible vehicles features rear-entry ramps. The minivan shown here is a Dodge Grand Caravan, but the line also includes the Chrysler Town & Country, Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey and the Volkswagen Routan. Many wheelchair users prefer rear-entry ramps because they reduce parking limitations. The vehicle can be accessed in a standard parking space or a single-car garage. No extra-wide spaces are required. The model shown here has a manual, fold-out ramp and a full-cut floor that is lowered to just behind the front seats, increasing headroom for the wheelchair passenger. Van and conversion price: $45,000. BraunAbility, (800) 843-5438.

Direct-entry ramp access

For wheelchair users who don’t think bigger is necessarily better, the Freedom Motors Scion XS-Able conversion may be the way to go. On the side-entry model, a push of the button automatically opens the front and back doors, and deploys the ramp all at once. The smaller size of the Scion offers direct entry, allowing the wheelchair users to move directly up the short, low-angled ramp to their traveling spot with no maneuvering necessary. The ramp has a wider and shorter profile, making it possible to access nondisabled parking spots. Another benefit of the Scion’s smaller size is its dainty thirst; at 28 mpg, it’s a very fuel-efficient accessible vehicle. Conversion price: $25,900. Freedom Motors, (800) 625-6335.

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