A Front-Row Seat at a Wheelchair Crash Test: EP Kicks off Its Wheelchair Transportation Safety Series with a Visit to the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute

By Carter, Jan | The Exceptional Parent, March 2007 | Go to article overview

A Front-Row Seat at a Wheelchair Crash Test: EP Kicks off Its Wheelchair Transportation Safety Series with a Visit to the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute


Carter, Jan, The Exceptional Parent


Lights, camera, action!

Lights, camera, action! Sounds like the requisite proclamation on a Hollywood movie set in sunny California, right? Actually, it is far from sunny and the digital thermometer reading on my rental car hovers right around negative ten degrees Fahrenheit on this day when I find myself in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). The temperature inside the building is warm and inviting, however, as I am escorted into the Sled Test Facility by Senior Technician, Charlie Bradley, a nine year veteran of UMTRI. The Sled Laboratory, while sounding like a location for the wintertime antics of brainy children on a snowy Michigan day, is actually a large utilitarian space with a high structural ceiling.

The centerpiece of the UMTRI Sled Lab is "the impact sled," as it is called in the business. What business is that? It's the business of conducting sled impact tests, perhaps better known as crash tests, on all types of wheelchairs and wheelchair seating systems as well as wheelchair tiedowns and occupant-restraint systems (WTORS). Miriam A. Manary, Senior Engineering Research Associate at UMTRI, explains that these tests evaluate the dynamic performance of these products with respect to their involvement in motor vehicle crashes in accordance with voluntary national and international standards and recommended practices. "Currently, most impact testing of wheelchairs at our facility is conducted in accordance with the WC19 standard," she clarifies. This voluntary standard, for which the more complete title is Section 19 of ANSI/RESNA Wheelchair Standards, Wheelchairs for Use as Seats in Motor Vehicles, was first approved in May of 2000.

The impact sled consists of a flat steel plate attached to a bright yellow sled platform. Charlie and Nichole Ritchie, the UMTRI Sled Engineer and Research Associate, will soon strap down today's "sacrificial lamb"; for these staff members, it's just one more test among hundreds that are carried out annually at UMTRI.

I am there for this specific test by express invitation from Dwight S. Gay, President of Gunnell, Inc., a Millington, MI company specializing in custom mobility products. An associate of EP, Mr. Gay is aware of EP's upcoming Wheelchair Transportation Safety series beginning this spring and thought a front-row seat at an actual wheelchair crash test would be a great field trip and fact-finding mission for EP's editorial staff. It is indeed!

Mr. Gay and his colleague, Mr. Fred Rodes of Performance Health Care Products LTD, have scheduled this crash test at UMTRI to evaluate one of Dwight's wheelchair frames in conjunction with Fred's innovative seating system, the V-Trak. Not a mandatory requirement, these two companies regularly test their wheelchairs and accessory components, seeing the exercise as a responsible practice to ensure the safety of their customers and to aid them in continuing to improve their products. It's also worth noting that these voluntary tests are conducted at the expense of the company that schedules them.

Throughout the morning, Dwight and Fred work with Nichole and Charlie to ready the wheelchair for the test. The checklist items are numerous and must be addressed painstakingly to ensure the validity of the crash test results. Dwight fine-tunes the tire and braking systems while Fred configures the seating system to accommodate Joe's body frame, size, and height. You know, Joe, right? He's the average Joe, who is known in more technical terms at UMTRI as the Anthropomorphic Test Device (ATD), or crash test dummy. Joe is one of the many crash dummies who is hoisted by a small, in-house crane from his resident closet into the day's awaiting wheelchair. For today's test, Joe represents a 225-pound male, characteristics which place him in about a 95th-percentile adult male weight category.

As the morning's preparations continue, Charlie is busy readying the myriad of high-speed digital video cameras that surround the impact sled. …

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