A wheeler's guide to safer driving

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on September 13, 2017 # Travel

When people first think of travel their thoughts tend to focus on transportation by air or on luxury cruise ships. After all, such trips are often expensive but can provide some memorable experiences. In reality, it is more likely that those dreaming of exotic travel options actually share the same transportation habits as most other people; the majority of their travel time is being spent in vehicles like automobiles, buses or vans that are driving on city streets or highways.

Although highway travel might seem to be safer than travel by air, it can be hazardous no matter what type of vehicles are involved. The National Safety Council estimates that over 40,000 people died on our nation's highways in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

For all of us who use mobility devices like wheelchairs as our means of moving around, driving safety needs to be a top priority. We may not be able to control our fate when riding as passengers in a bus or paratransit van, but what we do have control over is the vehicles we drive with hand controls or ride in most often as passengers. They need to be reliable enough to get us safely from point A to point B, and to keep us safe in the event of the most common types of accidents. To accomplish that, a few things need to be remembered.

Get to know your vehicle. If driving a wheelchair van equipped with a ramp or lift, know how it can be deployed if electrical controls malfunction or a power door opener does not work. You may need to instruct a 'good samaritan' or first responder about how to operate that equipment which is much easier if you are familiar with it. The same holds true for electric tie-downs that secure a wheelchair in the driving position, or to hold a passenger's power wheelchair. They can be unlocked manually, so know how to do it.

Don't skimp on maintenance. Any reputable business that routinely changes engine oil and lubricates vehicles should be willing to check and top off all fluids periodically between maintenance intervals. Major tire retailers will install, rotate and balance tires, often at no additional charge if they sold the tires. Remember that those tires are the only link between you and the roadway.

Carry road hazard insurance. First check with your auto insurance carrier, as your policy may include that. If towing is required, it may not be necessary to leave your vehicle if your wheelchair can be secured while the vehicle is being towed or carried on a truck.

Be ready for emergencies. Keep the fuel tank as full as possible at all times. In an emergency you may need to leave home quickly and if gas stations are not immediately available you could be stuck in traffic for extended periods in locations where you do not want to run out of fuel. This was especially problematic during some massive evacuations due to approaching hurricanes when dozens of vehicles ran out of gas and their occupants were trapped on highways far from nearby towns.

Despite our best preparations, accidents happen. The best philosophy when driving is to 'expect the unexpected.' The safest driver can become the victim of others who are inattentive, or operating their vehicles in a dangerous manner.

Carry an emergency flashlight, preferably one that can be recharged by winding or doesn't require batteries, and a cellphone charger that can be plugged into a cigarette lighter receptacle so it will stay charged for emergency use. That can also prove handy during a prolonged power outage at home if a cellphone battery is getting low.

When the inevitable accident happens, the next few minutes can be a matter of life or death. While drivers who are paralyzed might normally be able to reach all of the controls that operate power windows and door unlock buttons, in an emergency situation that can change quickly.

If electrical controls do not work, or someone is trapped by a seat belt in an overturned vehicle, drastic measures may be necessary. For such situations, it is important to have an inexpensive seat belt cutter tool available within reach of the driver or a front seat passenger; those tools also include a small hammer that can be used to break a window in order to allow escape if power windows won't operate.

If an accident happens, being prepared can save lives but the most important preparation costs nothing: by driving safely, and defensively, the likelihood that your vehicle will be involved in an accident can be drastically reduced. Enjoy your trip.

© 2017 Michael Collins

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.