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Safety is focus

October 1, 2009
by Maureen Hrehocik, Editor
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…though amenities abound in seniors' transportation

Ask any manufacturer of transportation vehicles for the seniors care market what the most important factor in a vehicle is and the answer will be “safety.” In polling some companies that build, distribute, and sell vehicles they will tell you the best ideas for improvements to safety-(and improvements in general)-come from the purchasers of their vehicles. Keith Whetter, president of Transportation Innovation LLC, Trussville, Alabama, used a focus group to answer the question: If one could design a “dream” vehicle, what would it look like? The group included Frank Holden, president, Assisted Living Association of Alabama; Eddie Cummings, executive director, Brookdale Place University Park, Birmingham, Alabama; Leslie Venable, executive director, Lake-view Estates, Hoover, Alabama; and Jan Yarbrough, executive director, Five Star Senior Living-Alabama.

Their wish list?

  • Make it fun to ride in with a choice of exterior colors

  • Something that doesn't look like a “seniors' bus”

  • Flexible, customizable floor plans

  • Vehicle doesn't require a CDL license

  • Be able to accommodate two wheelchairs

  • An entry step less than 9

  • All passengers get individual seating

  • Highest level of safety

  • Don't want to have to bend or crouch to enter or exit

  • Storage for personal items needs to be close by

  • Priced between $55,000 and $70,000

From the group's input, the Senior Living Vehicle (SLV) and SLV GTX were born. The SLV sports a custom-made top with a fiberglass and aluminum-reinforced roll cage. An integrated Bluetooth system allows the driver to keep hands on the wheel while driving. “If they're on a call when they enter the vehicle, they simply push a button on the vehicle console and the cell phone automatically syncs to the Bluetooth system and they can lay the phone down while driving.” A potential hazard when the wheelchair lift is down has also been addressed by some manufacturers. In an emergency situation, the driver can key in a resident's doctor's name or hospital. They simply find the resident's name, touch a button, and the information appears. The mirror also incorporates backup cameras so the driver can see residents or obstacles behind them. The chassis of the GMC van incorporates General Mo-tors' StabiliTrak® system so it's extremely stable on the road, according to Whetter. “The center of gravity is actually lower than in a standard van,” Whetter says. A power step folds down 8.5 inches from the ground. “Every seat has an integrated three-point safety belt,” Whetter says. “In vans you buy off the lot, many of them have seatbelts that hang from the ceiling, which can be a hazard.”
Wheelchairs load from the back of the SLV and SLV GTX from Transportation Innovation and have retractable wheelchair tie-downs that ensure proper anchoring of wheelchairs by staff

Wheelchairs load from the back of the SLV and SLV GTX from Transportation Innovation and have retractable wheelchair tie-downs that ensure proper anchoring of wheelchairs by staff

Another aspect important to the focus group was the ability for the vehicle to accept two wheelchairs and for the wheelchair lift to come off the back of the vehicle, not the side. This would make better sense in tight parking spaces where side entry is impossible, Whetter says. The SLV loads two wheelchairs from the back and both wheelchair occupants have full views out the back window. They are held in place with retractable tie-downs that automatically tighten if needed when going over bumpy terrain or stopping quickly.

The SLV also has a 120-volt power inverter under the passenger seat to plug a cooler in to keep medicines, such as insulin, cool. “A lot of residents who needed medicines kept cool couldn't go on outings because there was no way to take their medicine along.” Every seat has handrails as well as three-point safety belts integrated with the seat.

The focus group thinks Baby Boomers will be a lot more demanding than their parents. “They won't put up with being shuttled around in buses,” Whetter says. “They want comfort and a more ‘limousine’ experience.”

Chassis choices

Nick Brown, a sales representative for Mobility Transportation, a vehicle manufacturer, says he also relies on customers to tell him what they're looking for. He says the Ford Econoline brand is offering a wider variety of chassis than in the past, complete with a rollover stability control sensor that senses and calibrates the wheels to adjust to turns and redistribute the weight minimizing the chance of a rollover. Brown says auto-retractable tie-downs for wheelchairs are very popular with management at extended care facilities because there is no way for staff to tie down wheelchairs incorrectly. “They work like a seatbelt, wound in a spool, and all the caregiver has to do is pull it and secure it,” he says. “When it's released it automatically retracts.”

Bill Kauzlarich, regional sales manager for Midwest Transit Equipment, Kankakee, Illinois, agrees the self-tensioning wheelchair tie-downs improve safety immensely. “I've had staff at facilities tell me the wheelchairs are more secure when they return from a trip than when they left,” he says, due to the self-tightening as the vehicle is moving. Kauzlarich says seatbelts in general have vastly improved. All passengers can now have a lap and shoulder belt. “For years, just a lap belt was available, particularly on seats next to the aisle. Now, seats are made where all passengers can have the added safety of a three-point seatbelt.”