Accessible balance

Accessible balance Accessible balance
Battery-powered wheelchairs have become more widespread in recent years and they all have one thing in common; they’re heavy, and have been getting progressively heavier. As a consequence the ramps and lifts fitted to passenger vehicles have to be strong enough to cope with them.

It’s something Ratcliff Palfinger is conscious of and is now offering an internally-mounted C-Thru lift with a 500kg lifting capacity. “That’s 77 stone,” the manufacturer helpfully points out.

Nor is there any lack of room on the platform. It is 900mm wide and 1,500mm deep – an 800mm x 1,350mm platform is also available – and has a 150mm high-visibility side guard along with high-visibility handrails.

It’s fully-automatic and the platform splits vertically when stowed to improve the driver’s vision through the rear doors; hence the C-Thru name. A platform that does not split can be specified instead.

Safety features include a load-sensing device to prevent the lift closing while it’s in use and an audible warning that sounds when the lift is being deployed and when it is being stowed. If power to the lift fails then the operator can use the auxiliary hand-pump instead.

“Operators have been asking us for a 400kg-capacity lift for several years and that’s what we’d planned to launch initially,” says passenger sales manager, Beverley Jackson. “In the end however we felt it would make more sense to go all the way to 500kg.”

The lift can be fitted to ambulances, she adds.

Will Ratcliff Palfinger be launching a 500kg-capacity underfloor lift?

“Underfloors are comparatively narrow, and I can’t see us getting up to that sort of capacity with one,” she replies. “However we might be able to go up to 400kg at some point in the future.”

Powered chairs weigh 100kg on average and can tip the scales by almost 200kg. Even a child’s chair can weigh 120kg or more.

That being the case, surely offering a lift with a half-tonne capacity is a bit over the top?

Don’t forget that the weight of the chair’s occupant and the weight of the attendant also have to be included. While you will still be below 500kg when they’re factored into the equation, it’s better to have a wide safety margin than one that is dangerously narrow.

The presence of an attendant explains why platforms need to be large. Having too little space could result in either the attendant or the wheelchair passenger slipping over the edge.

In the light of the foregoing it is perhaps surprising that the ISO standard only requires wheelchair restraints to be tested to 85kg. Some manufacturers have responded by testing theirs to much higher figures.

One difficulty when it comes to handling wheelchairs is that they tend not to have their weight marked on them. Manufacturers argue that to do so would be difficult because they vary so much; some may have armrests, some may have an extra battery and so on.

The weight of an individual chair is however the sort of information that could be included in the proposed PAS 900 wheelchair passport. Attached to the wheelchair, the passport will contain all the information required about the chair and the user’s needs.

Ratcliff Palfinger is by no means the only maker of passenger lifts. PLS markets a fully-automatic one under the GX – Generation Xtra – banner and has come up with NX2A, a revised version of its NX Magic Floor front access system for coaches, while Ricon offers the S-Series and K-Series.

French coachbuilder Fast offers an electromechanical mid-mounted lift under the Low Lift Entry (LLE) banner for its bodies which has the key virtue of ensuring that lifting takes place inside the vehicle says UK representative, Roger Clode. “Users don’t end up suspended precariously outside in the rain and the whole exercise only takes seven seconds,” he says.

Installing the LLE lift involves fitting a separate door next to the coach’s own centre door. A ramp gives access to the compartment that has been created and a lift inside it raises the wheelchair user to saloon floor level.

Once a wheelchair is onboard, both it and its occupant have to be restrained if they’re travelling in a minibus or a coach. The aforementioned weight of battery chairs can make this challenging, but the leading restraint system makers are rising to the occasion.

Q’Straint’s Q-140 and Q-195 restraints boast a 140kg and 195kg rated capacity respectively for example. Unwin’s Titan range can cope with wheelchairs weighing up to 200kg.

There is also increased emphasis on ease and speed of use says Pascale Girard, Q’Straint’s international marketing supervisor.  “We’ve come up with belts that adjust and tension automatically,” she says.

Unfortunately those belts may not always be as well-looked-after as they should be.
“Once ours have been in service for five years – we guarantee then for the first three – we offer to check them to ensure they are still OK and safe to use,” she says. “It’s like a belt MoT.”

Restraints are not covered by the vehicle’s own MoT although some restraint makers believe that they should be.

At the Access 10 show in Manchester last week Q’Straint showd its new rear-facing, free-standing restraint system with backrest and integral lap belt. Describing it as  a complete safety station for coaches, Q’Straint says the new system will fit virtually any wheelchair and incorporate both the wheelchair and passenger restraint in a single integrated system.

Q’Straint’s new restraint system exceeds the legal requirements by incorporating an integral lap belt in the backrest which, at the same time, offers the passenger additional comfort and security. The unit is a free-standing ready-to-fit solution that bolts to the floor of the vehicle in the wheelchair space.

The wheelchair rests against the backrest, with the passenger facing the rear of the vehicle. The backrest shape allows various wheelchair designs to be accommodated and there is space for the battery packs of powered wheelchairs and scooters.

Q’Straint provides training in the use of restraint systems and the regulations that affect them. Legislation and the way in which people in wheelchairs are restrained often change; the move towards restraining the wheelchair occupant’s diagonal belt to the vehicle’s cant rail on new M1 and M2 passenger vehicles is but one example.

The aim there is to offer the individual the level of safety they would enjoy if they were wearing a lap-and-diagonal belt in a car.

Ramp manufacturers are looking to spread the gospel to key export markets that may not have treated accessibility as quite such a priority in the past. Compak has been doing just that in South Africa where the football World Cup is due to kick off later this year.

The rush to provide adequate accessible transport in the run-up to what is a massively-important event for the country has resulted in some poorly-though-out ramp options says Compak’s global sales and marketing director, Tony Rodwell.

“Nevertheless, the transition from a situation where the vast majority of buses had no means of access to one where every bus is being built with two ramps has to be seen as a quantum leap forward,” he observes.

“Compak has devoted a significant amount of resources to the South African market over the past five years,” he adds. “I believe we’re about to see a return on our investment.”