The Ten Commandments of Wheelchair Safety

by Kathy Wechsler on September 1, 2005 - 4:08pm

QUEST Vol. 12, No. 5

At one time or another, I've broken almost all of the Ten Commandments of Wheelchair Safety.

But it's time to smarten up before I'm condemned to the fiery pits of the emergency room or the wheelchair repair shop.

This article breaks down the importance of each wheelchair safety rule and, I hope, will help you learn from my mistakes so you don't have to repeat them.

I. Thou shalt not remove thy safety belt.

You never know when you're going to hit a bump or a crack in the sidewalk and be thrown out of your chair. A sudden stop or a steep decline can also be disastrous without a safety belt, as I recently found out when I hit the asphalt.

I also learned the hard way that a sneeze can throw you out of your chair if you're not wearing your hip belt.

Whenever you're propelling your manual wheelchair or are under the power of your power chair or scooter, Brian Hackett, a rehab technology supplier (RTS) at ADL (Aids for Daily Living) in Roseville, Calif., recommends that you always wear your hip (or pelvic) belt.

A reputable RTS won't sell you a chair without a hip belt (auto- or airline-style), unless you specifically request not to have one. I didn't want one at first, but a fall changed my mind. In some states, hip belts are mandatory if you want to use accessible public transportation. A simple Velcro-type belt won't cut it.

Various sizes of anti-tippers.
Anti-tippers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on your particular chair.
Invacare chair with anti-tippers
Anti-tippers, shown here on an Invacare chair, allow you the security of knowing you won't tip over backwards.

In addition to the hip belt, there also are chest straps, postural control belts, chest harnesses, foot straps and ankle straps available for extra security.

II. Thou shalt always use thy anti-tippers.

"I'd always recommend anti-tippers," Hackett says. "Even if you're very familiar with the chair, the terrain you're in may make the performance aspect of your chair act differently."

Trying to get over an obstacle can tip you over. So can climbing a steep incline, especially when you're not accustomed to a particular ramp or driveway. Rear anti-tippers keep you from going over backwards, preventing injury to you and damage to your chair.

I never knew the importance of anti-tippers until recently. I'd driven up my steep driveway hundreds of times, but this time I hit the wrong spot and over I went.

Most wheelchairs (power and manual) and scooters come with anti-tippers, but they usually can be removed, which is why newer chairs have built-in rear anti-tippers.

III. Turn off thy power or set thy wheel locks before transferring.

Whether your chair's manual or power, you don't want it to have a mind of its own. We all know what happens when we don't set our wheel locks on our manual chairs when transferring: The chairs either sail away beyond reach or we end up on the floor.

You tend to learn that one quickly. I sure did.

Wheel locks are designed to lock the wheel in place for safe transfers. Make sure to get your chair's wheel locks and tire pressures properly adjusted to keep them working. Wheel lock tips and extenders make brakes easier to use.

When hugging your grandmother, it's best to turn off your power chair or scooter. The touch of a button or the wiggle of a joystick can put Grandma in the hospital. It's also good to turn off your power while riding on an accessible van lift to prevent accidents.

Wheel locks on power chairs also let you stop yourself if your motor gets disengaged.

IV. Thou shalt not let kids ride on thy batteries or footrests.

Your chair's batteries and footrests aren't designed for the extra weight of a person, even a child. It's fun to share your wheels with a child, but not at the risk of breaking the chair or hurting the child.

Going over bumps or uneven terrain, you could very easily launch one of those small children off of a power chair if they are just holding on and riding, Hackett says.

In fact, it isn't safe to put anything on your footrests or batteries.

I guess that means no more footrest rides for my 4-year-old niece.

Man in a wheelchair wearing a Powercape
The Power Cape from Simplantex offers rain protection for power chair users.

V. Thou shalt not get thy controller wet.

Once, when my power chair was drenched with rain, I was asked if I could get electrocuted.

While that won't happen, there's a chance of shorting out your chair's electronics, which are extremely expensive to replace.

"It's like pouring water into your computer," Hackett says. "It could very easily catastrophically damage your chair."

Moisture isn't good for batteries, either, although they're generally in cases or battery boxes, so you'd really have to try to get them wet, he says. It's not likely to happen, but a battery can be shorted out that way.

You can buy a cape or poncho to cover your entire wheelchair, thus protecting important parts and keeping you dry at the same time.

A joystick cover keeps your control panel dry. For us cheapskates, a plastic baggie with a rubber band does the same thing.

Power chairs loaded onto the back of your car should be covered with a tarp of some kind in any weather.

VI. Turn off thy chair's power before using thy cell phone.

Don't drive your power chair or scooter while talking on a cell phone. In fact, Hackett recommends turning the chair's power off before using the phone. Even though wheelchair electronics are much more sophisticated than they used to be, there's still a slight chance of radio frequency interference (RFI) causing unintentional movements.

Your ham or CB radio also can cause your chair to misbehave.

All new chairs have RFI suppressors and most include an RFI warning. But even with a one-in-a-million chance, its still wise to play it safe.

VII. Thou shalt read thy owner's manual.

Always a must read, your chair's owners manual was created for your safety and the protection of your chair. It helps you familiarize yourself with the chair and gives you important advice and warnings.

VIII. Thou shalt keep thy chair in good working condition.

Keeping your chair in good working order contributes to your safety. That's why taking it to the vendor every six to eight months is recommended. The technician makes sure your chair's tire pressures and wheel locks are properly adjusted.

For instance, if your manual wheel locks are supposed to work when the tire pressure is at 40 pounds-per-square-inch, if you let your tire pressure drop down to say, 20 pounds-per-square-inch, the wheel locks aren't going to lock that wheel in place, Hackett says.

The technician tests the life of your batteries and tells you if you're charging them appropriately. Batteries should be replaced every year or so.

IX. Control thy chair safely.

Do you drive your chair like a drunken motorist? Before you accidentally burst through the wall or run someone over, get your RTS to help you determine if you need an alternative wheelchair control system.

Wheelchair with a safety flag.
The safety flag from Invacare makes you visible while crossing the street in your wheelchair.

If your progressive neuromuscular disease will eventually affect your hand strength, it wouldn't hurt to see what's out there to help you drive safely. Would a head array device give you better control than a standard joystick? For more on alternative wheelchair control devices, see "As the Wheel Turns" (September-October 2004).

X. Thou shalt not drive thy chair in traffic.

A wheelchair is considered a pedestrian and should ride on the sidewalk, Hackett says. If there's no sidewalk, use the bike lane or far side of the road, if there's room. Always ride in the same direction as the traffic, but never in the traffic lane!

Flags, lights or reflectors are recommended to make your chair visible in traffic.

I have spoken.

You can buy the safety products listed above from your wheelchair vendor. See "Safety Resources." Check with Quest advertisers, or do an Internet search for the product of interest.

These are the Ten Commandments of Wheelchair Safety.

Learn them, remember them and follow them, and the gods of wheelchair safety will smile down on you.


The Aftermarket Group
Anti-tippers & other replacement parts
(888) 824-8200

Safety belts & harnesses
(800) 547-5716

DIESTCO Manufacturing
Joystick covers, scooter & wheelchair covers
(800) 795-2392

Wheelchair capes & scooter covers
(877) 675-2689

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