Updated: Feb 18
Vehicles and Conversions
The privilege for any disabled person is to obtain their driver's license and drive a vehicle. Driving can give a sense of independence that is greater then one can ever imagine. It can give the person an opportunity to essentially blend in with society and become like any other driver on the road. The actual process of not only the evaluation, lessons, and testing, but also the process of acquiring a vehicle suited to the driver can be extremely difficult. Despite this, the freedom and independence gained from all this effort justifies this tough process. While the process can vary from state to state, the following article should provide a general overview of the process of getting evaluated for driving, lessons, and obtaining a vehicle suitable for the driver.
Evaluation & Lessons
The evaluation process answers the question of whether it is possible to operate a vehicle. This assessment is typically done at a hospital or rehabilitation facility that has a driving school that caters to the disabled. During the evaluation process, an instructor will meet with the prospective driver and place him/her in the driver's area of a vehicle. Through a series of tests, the instructor will determine whether the perspective driver is capable of manipulating the
controls, visualize the area behind and beside the vehicle, and has the reaction time and reflexes to respond to an emergency that could occur while driving. If the instructor determines that the perspective driver is capable of operating a vehicle, then the instructor will grant authorization to start lessons and, if state-funded, notify the proper state agencies.
Driving lessons begin as a driving setup is finalized and is tailored to each individual. This setup can vary from hand controls to specialized steering wheels to customized switchgear. Once the prospective driver has a setup that he or she can comfortably operate, the driving lessons continue as any other student driver. The number of lessons required is the same as any other new driver; with some states requiring 50 hours of drive time before attempting the driver's license exam. It is not unusual for some driving schools to offer all-day sessions to complete the lessons as quickly as possible. Adapted driving lessons can expensive, with rates ranging between $120-$200 per hour. Once the prospective driver has completed the required hours, the instructor will take them to the local DMV for their driver's license exam.
Once the driver obtains their driver’s license, the driving school will write up a prescription outlining all the necessary equipment needed to be fitted to the driver’s vehicle in order to operate the vehicle. This prescription factors in a variety of factors, such as the driver’s wheelchair, the required adapted equipment, and other issues that are necessary in order to safely operate the vehicle. The prescription will then be sent to proper state agencies who will send it to qualified mobility dealers in the area. This part of the process varies from state to state: it is recommended to check with your state agency to determine how they choose the mobility dealer that will handle the conversion. Some states will have been known to dictate the vehicle and the conversion since some states will provide funding for the entire conversion and the vehicle: if you want a particular vehicle that is different from the one specified by the state, you may have the pay the difference for both the vehicle and the conversion required for the vehicle.
When it comes to adapted vehicles, the type of vehicle that typically comes to mind is a van. Not every single minivan or full-size van on the market is available for conversion but many of the popular vans are available. Conversion companies such as Braun Ability, VMI, and Freedom Motors may have exclusivity to certain vehicles and/or specific types of conversions for certain vehicles. Some conversions are designed specifically to allow transport of the disabled passenger: others are tailored to allow the disabled user to either drive the vehicle or ride as a passenger. It is important to determine what type of conversion suitable for your needs: this can be done by consulting your local mobility dealer. It is also important to purchase the vehicle from a mobility dealership and not a regular car dealership: in many cases, extra costs will be incurred if you purchase the vehicle from a regular dealership. Other conversions may also dictate that the vehicle must be new: your local mobility dealer will be able to determine whether the vehicle is deemed fit for conversion.
Minivans are some of the most popular conversions that are available. The minivans that are available for conversion are the Chrysler Pacifica, Honda Odyssey, and the Toyota Sienna (2004-present). With all of the minivan conversions, the floor of the minivan is lowered between 8-12 inches so that the wheelchair user sits at approximately the same level as the other passengers. Minivans are typically fitted with a ramp that will deploy from either the rear of van or from the passenger-side sliding door. These ramps are usually trouble-free and have an advantage when compared to their full-size counterparts: if the ramp doesn't deploy on its own, they can be simply be deployed manually. Kneeling suspension is also used in minivan conversions to lower the angle needed for a wheelchair user to get in and out of the vehicle. In terms of having the wheelchair user drive, the minivan conversion that will have to be used is the side-entry conversion since the lowered floor needed for this conversion is larger, running from the firewall all the way to in front of the rear suspension area. Since the floor on these minivans are lowered, the ride height of these minivans are raised in comparison to standard minivans by a couple of inches; despite this, many measures have been taken to ensure that these minivans perform just like standard minivans in all respects.
Full-size vans have a slight advantage in that, in some cases, they can be converted more quickly than their minivan counterparts. While it can take approximately 4-6 months to convert a minivan, it takes a fraction of the time to convert a full-size van. Since these vans are larger, they can accommodate larger wheelchairs or adaptive driving equipment that cannot be fitted in a minivan conversion. Full-size vans that are available for conversion are the Ford Transit, GM vans (Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana), Mercedes Sprinter, and RAM Promaster. Some of these vans may require a lowered floor but, unlike a minivan with its unibody structure, will require very little modification to the vehicle. Since full-size vans have more ground clearance then a minivan, they typically use a wheelchair lift in order to get the wheelchair user in and out of the vehicle. The lifts used are similar to what are used in school buses, commercial medical transports, and paratransit taxis. Because of its widespread use in commercial applications, the lifts are typically very reliable and should provide trouble-free service for the life of the vehicle. The only disadvantage that a lift may have over a ramp is that when the lift is inoperable and the wheelchair user is alone and inside the car, it can leave the user stranded. In terms of the vehicle itself, most of the original mechanical equipment on these vans are retained so there is little difference in terms of performance.
If driving a van is absolutely out of the question, there are some alternatives that are available. Freedom Motors offers rear-entry conversions for a number of smaller vehicles such as the Kia Soul and the Fiat 500L. Braunability has a conversion for the Ford Explorer that is similar to a lowered-floor minivan. There are also a number of other companies that have done conversions for the Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Arcadia, and Buick Enclave. While these vehicle conversions mostly retain the appearance of an SUV/Crossover, all of these vehicle conversions are limited to front-wheel- drive and there is less interior space compared to a minivan conversion.
There are other conversions that are available for those who require a vehicle that needs to be rear-wheel- drive and/or four-wheel- drive. There are a number of companies that perform conversions on any of the General Motors full-size trucks and SUVs. These conversions can be done to allow the wheelchair user to either drive or be transported with a elaborate lift-system that mostly retains not only the appearance but also the capabilities of an SUV/truck. Despite the aesthetic and capability advantages that this vehicle conversion provides, the cost of this conversion can be high and possibly exceed the cost of a minivan conversion.
Another alternative is Mobility Ventures MV-1, which is a vehicle designed specifically for wheelchair users. This vehicle is not based on a ‘normal’ car that has been adapted: it is designed, built, and sold completely wheelchair-accessible. This difference resolves a number of the shortcomings that minivan conversions inherently have due to being adapted for a wheelchair user: the ramp on an MV-1 can be adjusted to different lengths and is much wider than the ramps and platforms on other conversions, the space inside is quite large and makes maneuvering inside quite easy for the wheelchair user, and the total cost of the vehicle is lower in comparison to the cost of a minivan and the conversion necessary to accommodate a wheelchair. The disadvantage to the MV-1 is the inability for the wheelchair user to drive this vehicle from their wheelchair.
Things To Consider
With any vehicle or conversion that you use, there are some things that should be decided upon when purchasing and converting a vehicle. Securement of the wheelchair is important as this provides the primary form of restraint for the wheelchair user. Tie-down straps work effectively for securing wheelchairs; however, they can not always be handled by the wheelchair user. There are electronic wheelchair lockdown systems, such as the EZ-Lok system, that work very effectively in securing any wheelchair including but not limited to a heavy powerchair: these type of systems are tested to keep the wheelchair in place in an accident and are subjected to the same Federal crash testing as normal road cars. While expensive, they do allow the wheelchair user to secure the chair easily and quickly without the use of tie-down straps. Even if one purchases a van with an electronic lockdown system, it is always handy to also keep a set of tie-down straps inside the vehicle in an emergency.
The other thing to carefully consider is auto insurance coverage. Auto insurance companies do provide coverage for the conversion and adaptive equipment: however, when obtaining coverage, it is advised to make sure that the coverage covers the entire conversion. With some auto insurance companies, there are two types of coverage: "Handicapped Equipment" coverage and "Special Equipment" coverage. "Handicapped Equipment" coverage only covers
basic equipment such as the ramp/lift: it does not cover the lowered floor, kneeling system,
lockdown system, or any of the adaptive driving equipment. "Special Equipment" coverages
covers the entire conversion in all respects. It is important that when you apply for auto insurance coverage for your adapted vehicle, you send the insurance company the list itemizing all of the changes done to the vehicle for conversion. This list can be obtained from the mobility
dealership performing the conversion. While the insurance costs cary greatly for these types of
vehicles, it is worth every penny should an emergency happen.