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August 04, 2007

The High Cost (and Dangers) of Improperly Adapted Vehicles

By Bob Nunn

Dealers mingled at the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) show in Tampa, Florida where new products making personal transportation more accessible to drivers with disabilities were exhibited.

When Carol Hawkins needed a rear-entry wheelchair van to transport her 37-year-old daughter, Joella, from Rhode Island to Florida, Hawkins turned to eBay. Joella, who has spina bifida and hydrocephalus, uses a wheelchair too big to fit in a side-entry vehicle.

Late last year, Hawkins paid $13,500 for a used van from someone in Kentucky and immediately noticed problems with the vehicle upon delivery. A discrepancy with the odometer 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 it to a dealer who specialized in wheelchair van conversions. The mechanics found structural support problems as well as an issue with the fuel tank—the fuel smell coming from under the van meant it wasn’t safe to drive, she was advised.


Hawkins then turned to the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA), an international nonprofit 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.

“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, Florida,” 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, there was no structural bracing under the floor (the floor flexed when stepped on), the rear axle was hitting the lower rear of the vehicle, the tie- downs for the wheelchair were incorrectly positioned, the brake line was rubbing on the exhaust, and the rear door didn’t close properly.

It was immediately clear that a less-thanqualified dealer improperly installed the van’s wheelchair adaptations. Not unusual in the “anyone can do it” world of customized vehicle modifications for individuals with disabilities.

Quality Assurance

The obvious lesson here is that if you are going to purchase an adapted vehicle from a private individual, or a dealer who doesn’t solely do vehicle adaptations, ask the seller if you can bring it to an authorized NMEDA dealer to have it inspected. If they refuse, you are probably better off not purchasing the vehicle for obvious reasons. You can also request from the owner records from where the vehicle was originally adapted to find out if the work was performed by a reputable dealer.

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

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.

While mainstream automobile dealerships are sales satellites for the manufacturers, adaptive vehicle dealerships function as secondary “original equipment manufacturers” (OEMs). We are responsible for altering the vehicle and bringing it back into safety compliance.

In the past, small town garages or local mechanics retrofitted the vehicles, but not to NMEDA Guidelines or OEM specifications. Today, the consumer who uses a QAP dealer is assured that their vehicle 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 full Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards compliance.

While we focus on safety compliance issues when we adapt a vehicle, we also know how to service the vehicle when something needs attention outside the scope of the mobility equipment aspect. A QAP technician is trained and qualified to help with other problems and most have adapted rental/loaner vehicles available during service downtime.

Do not expect to stop at the repair shop down the road if you have an adapted vehicle with, say, 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 will make you—and us—happier.

Bob Nunn is the president of Creative Carriage, Ltd., and of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA).


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