If you are looking for a wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV), for a wheelchair user to travel in as either the driver or a passenger, this section has information that could help you make a choice. It is also important to ‘try before you buy’. All good suppliers will be happy to arrange a demonstration and/or test drive: many will come to your home or workplace if you prefer.
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Side access and drive from wheelchair conversions
The options for wheelchair users who wish to travel independently include both side entry and rear entry conversions.
There are car conversions designed so that you can drive from your own wheelchair, and others where you can transfer from your chair to the driver’s seat, either inside the vehicle, or outside.
Some car converters sell power chairs that are particularly suited to ‘drive from wheelchair’ use. Important features of these include adjustable seat height.
As an alternative to converting a standard production car for wheelchair use, there are powered lift systems which are fitted in the car and lift both the wheelchair and its occupant in through a standard car door. This gives the wheelchair user a greater choice of cars.
For ultimate flexibility of use, the Switch conversion based on the Fiat Qubo, above left, allows the wheelchair position to be swapped between driver and upfront passenger, as required.
Rear access conversions
The most widely available type of conversion, the wheelchair access is provided at the rear of the vehicle, with a retractable ramp that may be manual or powered, or possibly a platform-type lift. The floor of the vehicle is generally lowered, making a gentler gradient for the wheelchair to enter, and providing better headroom for the wheelchair occupant.
Some conversions also have electrically powered suspension, lowering the vehicle to make it easier to propel a manual chair up the ramp.
Depending on the choice of car/conversion, the wheelchair occupant may be accommodated in a solo position behind the driver and front passenger seats, or may be able to take their place alongside one or more other passengers in the rear of the vehicle.
This rear access “drive from” wheelchair conversion of the Renault Kangoo enables a wheelchair user to wheel themselves in via a rear ramp and tailgate, park their wheelchair and transfer to a motorised driver’s seat, which then moves forward to the driving position. A remote control enables the ramp to be stowed and tailgate closed, ready to drive off.
Wheelchair tie-down and seatbelts
It is really second nature to ‘belt up’ as soon as you get into a car, whether as a driver or passenger. The situation is a bit more complicated for anyone travelling in their wheelchair.
First, of course, the chair itself needs to be tied down. There are various systems available, featuring fixed points of attachment or rails, the latter making it easier to change the wheelchair/seat positions. Some tie-down systems are automatic, and lock onto the base of the chair as soon as it is in position. Others are manual, or semi-automatic. Depending on the system chosen, it may be necessary to tighten and tidy the restraining belts. Others are self-tensioning and self-retracting.
The wheelchair’s occupant also needs security within the chair when travelling. This can include a four-point safety restraint system; lap belt (similar to an airline seat belt); headrest (to minimise whiplash injury in the event of a collision). There are also special systems to suit children.
In our legislation section, you can read the MDA’s (Medical Devices Agency)Guidance on the Safe Transportation of Wheelchairs.
We believe that safety is extremely important, especially when you consider that a conversion can involve major surgery on a vehicle: cutting out and reconstructing sections of the floor; moving vital parts such as brake lines and fuel tank; fitting non-standard seats, wheelchair restraints and so on. It may therefore surprise you to learn that there are no legally binding safety/quality regulations governing this particular area of activity.
Fortunately, there are many very reputable companies building safe conversions. These are some of the signs to look out for, to make sure that you are not taking unnecessary risks.
Converted vehicles can be subjected to Government tests to achieve Low Volume Type Approval (LVTA). This is a very expensive business (it can cost more than £50,000 for approval for up to 500 examples of a single type of conversion).
Not surprisingly, some very reputable, safety-conscious converters decide against applying for LVTA. And it is clearly impossible for any one-off conversions made to suit one customer’s very specific needs. Instead, a Single Vehicle Approval (SVA) can be applied for on each car that is converted. This is a cheaper visual inspection, rather like an MOT.
Some conversions have achieved approval from the original vehicle manufacturer. This is another important indicator of high safety standards: Renault, Peugeot, Fiat and Volkswagen have all given approval for some WAVs converted from their original models, but not all manufacturers by any means have shown themselves ready to follow that route.
A number of the bigger companies have established a trade association, WAVCA (Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles Converters Association) with its own set of regulations for members to follow.
And finally, Motability, which assists with financing the purchase or lease of many WAVs, will only allow vehicles with either LVTA or SVA onto their schemes, as well as applying its own series of checks on both safety and suitability for purpose as a wheelchair accessible vehicle, covering items such as wheelchair restraint systems, ease of wheelchair access, after-sales service and warranty.