CORVALLIS - A new type of securement system for wheelchairs and other mobility aids got "two thumbs up" from both drivers and riders alike in recently completed trials conducted in two mass transit systems.
The tests, conducted in Oregon and Alaska, have confirmed that a new, patented technology developed by researchers at Oregon State University works well, is enthusiastically endorsed by wheelchair users and bus drivers, and is now ready for licensing in the commercial marketplace.
Scientists say it should solve many problems and - especially in coordination with the trend towards easy-to-board, "low-floor" buses - usher in a new era of convenient, safe public transportation for people with disabilities.
"The people we worked with in these trials really, really liked the new system," said Katharine Hunter-Zaworski, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at OSU. "I think this technology will catch on fairly quickly now, because it's clearly the way to go for the future."
Accessibility to buses and other forms of public transportation, Hunter-Zaworski said, is now mandated by the Americans With Disabilities Act. But past approaches to restrain wheelchairs and other mobility aids were often slow, cumbersome, required assistance from the transport drivers and didn't give the person with disabilities the independence they needed.
It was a serious concern, Hunter-Zaworski said, because many people who use mobility aids have low income and few other options for transportation.
"Without convenient mass transit, it's like sentencing people to house arrest," she said. "One user of our new system was literally in tears when told the test period was over and she would have to go back to using the standard belt system securement."
To meet this need, OSU engineers invented and patented a new type of bracket that mounts to wheelchairs and can be backed into a "capture device" on buses or other vehicles. It makes a fast, solid and safe restraint.
The first major tests of the new technology by transit drivers and mobility aid users were conducted in trials during 1995 and 1996 with the Lane Transit District in Eugene, Ore., and Anchorage Transit Department in Alaska.
The study was conducted by Hunter-Zaworski and Joe Zaworski, an OSU assistant professor of mechanical engineering. Among the results:
- Drivers said they didn't need to provide any assistance at all.
- The solid connection provided by this system was a major improvement over older approaches, such as belts and straps, and helped eliminate jokes between driver and user about getting ready to "rock and roll."
- Wheelchair interface devices that were built in, instead of added on, would be a major improvement.
- Transit managers were optimistic that the new system would save time and help keep the buses on schedule.
- Both mobility aid users and bus drivers were enthusiastic about the new system. Other passengers barely noticed its use.
- Some hardware changes in the existing technology could improve and fine tune the system.
- Expense of mounting the D-ring interface to mobility aids is still an obstacle to widespread use.
The issue of cost, Hunter-Zaworski said, could be most effectively addressed by having the interface device needed for this system built into all new wheelchairs. The cost savings to some transit systems may help persuade them to finance the attachments for existing mobility aid users, she said.
There are also some legal liability issues among mobility aid manufacturers that are a concern in this area, she said.
New federal legislation that provided guidelines and a mandate for the new securement systems would expedite their implementation in the marketplace, Hunter-Zaworski said.