Dave Jones explains how you can go about ensuring that your WAV is fully compliant with modern safety standards
The vast majority of wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) are built by taking an existing vehicle and making some modifications so that it can accommodate a wheelchair user, either as a driver or a passenger. These modifications have important safety implications, since essential parts of the car such as the brakes, fuel tank and seat belts may have to be moved or reconstructed. That’s why it is essential that you buy from a well-established company that has an excellent safety record.
Given that most WAVs are reconstructed, rebuilt or radically altered vehicles, they must be approved by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) before they can be legally sold in the UK. The manufacturer will normally be responsible for obtaining the necessary vehicle approval, but you want to be sure that the vehicle you are considering has definitely been DVSA approved.
There are a number of different approval methods, including Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) [PDF]. This involves a visual inspection and a number of other tests to see if the vehicle satisfies minimum safety standards. There are other options for larger quantities of the same vehicle type, such as the European Community Small Series Type Approval (EC SSTA).
Secondhand WAVs are usually just as safe and reliable as WAVs purchased new, but it’s important to know which safety checks have been performed on them. Secondhand vehicles should be given a full road test, as well as a tyre test. For WAVs that are three years or older, ask if it comes with a full MOT that will cover the vehicle for the next 12 months.
A wheelchair must be securely fastened within the vehicle for the occupant’s safety and comfort. There are numerous ways of doing this depending on your specific WAV – some methods may involve fixed points of attachment, while others make use of rails. Wheelchair tie-down systems are common, and can be had in automatic versions that lock the wheelchair in place once it is correctly positioned. Semi-automatic and manual tie-down systems will require wheelchair users and sometimes an assistant to tighten and adjust the fastenings as needed.
You should check that any wheelchair tie-downs and restraints you are considering have passed a simulated crash test. Remember that powered wheelchairs are much heavier than manual wheelchairs, so be sure to choose a tie-down that’s suitable for the type of wheelchair you use.
In addition to a tie-down, a WAV can be fitted with seat fixtures to secure the wheelchair to the vehicle’s floor. Sirus Automotive’s Fiat Qubo Switch Conversion (pictured right), for example, allows a wheelchair user to switch between occupying the driver’s side and upfront passenger position. Seat fixtures must also pass safety tests as they will often be an integral aspect of the seatbelt anchorages, with said requirements varying depending on the size of the vehicle.
Seatbelts for wheelchair users are available in different types, including four-point safety restraint systems and lap belts, as well as seatbelts that are appropriately sized for children. Whichever seatbelt you choose, it should comply with all relevant legal standard and fit the user comfortably. If a wheelchair will also be used as a vehicle seat, it should have a headrest in order to reduce the likelihood of whiplash or other neck injuries.
You should be able to find a WAV that can comfortably accommodate your existing wheelchair. However, some may prefer to purchase a wheelchair that’s specifically designed to be used as a forward-facing vehicle seat, as they are generally more convenient, safer for vehicle use compared to standard wheelchairs. It’s important that the seat height of such a wheelchair is adjustable, and that it complies with the international safety and design standard ISO 7176 Part 19.
Dave Jones has 30 years of automotive experience and is currently Director of Mobility Nationwide – a family-run business that supplies WAVs throughout the UK. For more information, contact 01824 707 773 or visit www.wheelchairaccessiblevehicles.com