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Adapted vehicles: high costs & dangers.

When Carol Hawkins needed a rear-entry wheelchair-accessible van to transport her 37-year-old daughter, Joella, from Rhode Island to Florida, Hawkins turned to eBay. Joella, a paraplegic who has spina bifida and hydrocephalus, functions at a pre-teen level. Her wheelchair was too large to fit in a side-entry vehicle.

Late last year, Hawkins paid $13,500 for a used van from someone in Kentucky and immediately upon delivery noticed problems with the vehicle. An odometer discrepancy hampered her getting permanent license plates, and the "check air bags" and "check engine" lights were on. The repair shop she took it to found problems with the catalytic converter and brake line.

After speaking to the person who sold her the van, she took the vehicle to a dealer specializing in wheelchair van conversions. They found structural support problems as well as an issue with the fuel tank--and advised her the fuel smell coming from under the van meant it wasn't safe to drive.

Hawkins then turned to the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA), an international nonproft trade association committed to ensuring quality and professionalism in the manufacturing and installation of safe and reliable mobility equipment in vehicles for drivers and passengers with disabilities.

A Bad Deal

"When I spoke to a NMEDA dealer over the phone, they were so concerned, they came from their location in Tampa to my home in South Pasadena, Fla.," Hawkins recalls. "They were horrified by what they found."

The front exhaust and muffler on the vehicle Hawkins purchased was too close to the fuel tank, the floor had no structural bracing (the floor flexed when stepped on), the rear axle was hitting the vehicle's lower rear, the wheelchair tie-downs were incorrectly positioned, the brake line was rubbing on the exhaust, and the rear door didn't close properly.

It was immediately clear a less-than-qualified dealer improperly installed the van's wheelchair adaptations--not unusual in the "anyone can do it" world of customized vehicle modifications for people with disabilities.

Even though Hawkins contacted the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Kentucky's attorney general, nothing is resolved. She is stuck with a van she cannot drive, out quite a bit of money, and her daughter remains in Rhode Island.

"The obvious lesson is, never buy a van from any person or dealer who does not solely do wheelchair van adaptations. I wish I had found NMEDA and bought from one of their dealers. This has been a nightmare, and I want people to know that this does not need to happen to them," says Hawkins about her misfortune.

Protect Yourself

As NMEDA's president and someone in the business for more than 20 years, all too often I hear stories similar to Hawkins's. For all the companies that have passed the rigorous independent inspection requirements of NMEDA's Quality Assurance Program (QAP) accreditation, the subject of quality, safety, and customer satisfactions is top priority. Just as important is educating the public that going to a mobility equipment company not recognized by NMEDA can have unsatisfactory results.

Designed to promote quality, safety, and reliability measured against the highest standards available, QAP is the only one of its kind within the mobility equipment industry. A NMEDA QAP dealer understands the needs of consumers with disabilities--what they need now as well as any modifications that might be required down the road.

For instance, people with degenerative conditions such as multiple sclerosis will have changing needs in the future. QAP dealers recognize this and can readily adapt a vehicle's mobility equipment requirements to individual situations.

Changing or adapting a vehicle may seem simple, but it is complicated in terms of safety issues, which is the number-one concern in making sure all mobility equipment is installed correctly. Modifying a seat so it pivots and can be removed from the vehicle requires special attention when considering the seat-belt system or proper air-bag deployment.

NMEDA QAP dealers work closely with the OEM's (original equipment manufacturer's) engineers and must have a clear understanding of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Thousands of options and adapted devices are available, so this knowledge is critical in meeting regulations and keeping vehicles safe to drive.

While mainstream automobile dealerships are sales satellites for the manufacturers, adaptive vehicle dealerships function as secondary OEMs, if you will. We are responsible for altering the vehicles and bringing them back into safety compliance.

In the past, small-town garages or local mechanics retrofitted vehicles, and not to NMEDA guidelines or OEM specifications. Today, consumers who use QAP dealers are assured their vehicles will pass all federal safety standards. How do I know this? Because of the independent audit conducted on all QAP dealers, to make certain all modifications are done with flail Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards compliance.

Crash Tests

In addition to meeting these safety standards, a critical part of the QAP is working with the National Highway Transportation and Safety Agency (NHTSA) to ensure the newly installed adaptive equipment can pass crash tests. For example, when we change the fuel system or the chassis is modified significantly, we participate in crash-testing the vehicle from every direction--front, back, and side--to ensure it does not lose even one tablespoon of gasoline.

Participating in these crash tests is not without significant expense. It costs about $200,000 to design, build, and try one of these tests. QAP dealers do not take safety compliance lightly, and we make every effort to work with post-adaptation crash-test results and research to ensure our customers' vehicles are the safest on the road.

While NMEDA focuses on safety compliance issues when adapting vehicles, we also know how to service them when something needs attention outside the scope of the mobility equipment aspect. QAP technicians are trained and qualified to help with other problems, and most have adapted rental/loaner vehicles available during service downtime.

Don't expect to stop at the repair shop down the road if you have an adapted vehicle with, for example, a lowered floor. Instead, seek out a qualified QAP dealership to help with all your adapted vehicle needs. Your vehicle will be safer, and that in turn make you, and us, happier.

Contributor: Bob Nunn.

Contact: NMEDA, 3327 West Bearss Avenue, Tampa, FL 33618. 800-833-0427 / 813-264-2697 / 962-8970 (fax) / /
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Title Annotation:mobility and more
Author:Nunn, Bob
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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