Buying a wheelchair accessible SUV requires more due diligence compared to buying any other vehicle. Not only do you want a reliable SUV to get you from place to place, but you need to have the confidence that all the extra features work properly and are suitable for your disability. Everything from the converted features to the insurance on the vehicle requires special attention.

Take the time to review the types of SUVs that make excellent choices for wheelchair accessible conversions. Determine exactly how you need to use the vehicle, whether carrying passengers or driving it yourself. Get the required features of a mobility vehicle that meets your needs and budget.

Mobility and Wheelchair SUV Decisions

Independence is often reliant on mobility and reliable transportation is a key component to mobility. When looking at wheelchair accessible SUVs or vans, assess your situation. Think about how often you plan on using the vehicle; if you only need it for vacations or occasional use, consider renting an accessible SUV instead.

While an SUV is not the typical choice for many mobility or accessibility vehicles, they can be an excellent choice as a handicap vehicle if you live in areas such as Tacoma where driving conditions are not always ideal, especially during icy winter months. Many SUVs have truck chassis which allow them to be more durable with heavier wheelchairs and still have the right amount of pickup and control when driving in country terrain or on steep inclines.

The SUV Vs Van Choice

Minivans are often the first choice when purchasing or converting a vehicle into a wheelchair accessible vehicle. But, automated wheelchair lifts make the SUV an attractive option for many families needing a reliable and handicap-friendly car with more power and style.

Pros and Cons of Vans

Passenger vans and minivans have been the standard for mobility and wheelchair accessible vehicles for decades. Vans are designed to adaptation and big loads lending themselves well to wheelchair transport.

The pros of using minivans for wheelchair accessible vehicles include:

  • Side sliding doors: adequate width makes a natural access point for wheelchair access either via ramp or lift making providing multiple conversion options.
  • Rear van entry: gives a secondary option for occupied wheelchair accessibility or an easy location for storage of unoccupied wheelchairs.
  • Level floors: increase modification options because additions can be placed anywhere for custom interior designs.

The cons of using minivans for wheelchair accessible vehicles include:

  • Big size: many passenger vans have excessive length and width measurements compared to other vehicles restricting visibility around the vehicle making driving and parking more difficult.
  • Performance in poor driving conditions: usually have a V4 or V6 engine with all-wheel drive not making it the best choice for hills or hazardous driving conditions.

Pros and Cons of SUVs

More and more drivers of wheelchair access vehicles are looking for trucks and SUVs that meet their lifestyle demands. Just because a person or family needs a wheelchair accessible vehicle doesn’t mean they are limited to running errands and immediately returning home.

The pros of using SUVs for wheelchair accessible vehicles include:

  • Truck chassis and engines: designed for strength and durability making them ideal for transporting heavy wheelchairs plus additional mobility aids or equipment.
  • Stylish design: a lifestyle choice of many who want to drive a vehicle that is both functional and attractive.
  • Performance in poor driving conditions: these bigger engines, rear-wheel drive, and heavier vehicles contribute to better performance in wet or snowy conditions.

The cons of using SUVs for wheelchair accessible vehicles include:

  • Modification limitations: require adaptation to ensure the wheelchair secures safety where a passenger seat once was, often requiring removing an entire row of seating.
  • Uneven floors: limited options with only side entry access available unless extreme and costly modifications are made.
  • Increased cost: SUVs are more popular with many added lifestyle features making them a higher-priced option for wheelchair access modification in most cases.

Whether you choose to go with a more traditional passenger van or SUV, confirm that all modifications meet the regulations set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was passed in 1990 to standardize requirements giving disabled persons access to more activities and independence.   

Department of Transportation Safety Regulations

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has ADA compliant regulations that require transit operators to make their best efforts to secure wheelchairs and scooters during transit. All ADA compliant buses and vans must have a two-part securement system that first locks the wheelchair in place even if it doesn’t have a break. The second part is to have a seat belt and shoulder harness to secure the wheelchair occupant.

When it comes to mobility needs, you’ll hear NMEDA being used as an industry standard. The National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) is a national nonprofit organization that has developed a system of accreditation and a database of reputable authorized mobility dealers. Anyone on the list is certified as meeting NMEDA’s safety standards as part of the association’s Quality Assurance Program.

This is the only nationally recognized accreditation program in the adaptive mobility equipment industry focused on keeping drivers and passengers safer. NMEDA works in conjunction with rules and regulations set forth by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the national compliance extension of the Department of Transportation. NHTSA also maintains a database of registered dealers who are dedicated to meeting all safety standards.

What Features Are Needed for SUV Wheelchair Accessibility

Certain features are required to make any wheelchair accessible SUV or van compliant with ADA and DOT regulations. The federal regulations are minimum standards for all ADA compliant vehicles but vans or SUVs that exceed these standards make modifications easier and safer for travelers using wheelchairs.  

The minimum standards for an ADA-compliant wheelchair accessible vehicle include:

  • Lift door height: doors opening must be at least 56-inches in height.
  • Handicap lift: platforms must be at least 30-inches in width by 40-inches in length to sustain the size and weight of occupied wheelchairs.
  • Wheelchair attachments: restraints designed to keep the wheelchair from moving while the vehicle is in motion that can withstand a minimum of 2,500 psi per leg.
  • Seat belt restraint mechanism: passenger restraint system that includes a four-point harness system with both a lap and shoulder belt.
  • Interior lighting: a minimum of a one-foot candle of illumination for the interior of the vehicle to properly tend to locking wheelchairs and securing seat belts.

Several minivans on the market roll out of dealerships already meeting the ADA-compliance standards without modification. These models include the Ford Transit Wheelchair Transport Van, Toyota Sienna Wheelchair Van and the Legend Side Entry Handicap Van Conversion.

If you are looking for an ADA-compliant SUV, you can modify an existing SUV to meet standards or look at some of the newer SUV models coming out of factories meeting all ADA-compliance standards for wheelchair accessibility. These include the Ford Explorer BraunAbility, the VMI Honda Pilot and the Freedom Motors SUV models of GMC’s Yukon or Chevrolet’s Suburban.

Wheelchair Accessible SUV Assessment

Determine the type of wheelchair accessibility or mobility vehicle equipment you need before you start shopping for an SUV. By assessing your needs, you will be able to find an SUV that meets you passenger size requirements as well as any additional work capacity options such as towing capacity.

Unoccupied Wheelchair and Scooter Lifts

Two basic types of unoccupied lifts the are equipped on vans and SUVs; the choice between the two depends on the handicap accessible needs of the passenger. Outside lifts are available for most vehicles equipped with a Class I, Class II or Class III trailer hitch. Inside lifts are installable within an SUV or minivan allowing handicap accessibility via a swing-arm style or a platform-style mount.

The two main types of unoccupied wheelchair and scooter lifts are:

  • Swing-Arm Style: this is a mechanical arm mounted to the vehicle that is secured on a docking component. An electric motor moves the unoccupied wheelchair up and down into a locked position for safe transport.
  • Platform-Style: this lift allows the wheelchair or scooter to move from the docked, ground position in order to be lifted and stored in position for transport. It reduces required work to secure the scooter or wheelchair while offering easier access on and off the docked platform.

Unoccupied wheelchair and scooter lifts are great options for individuals who use the chairs for extended durations but are still ambulatory to get in and out of the vehicle on their own or to get aid in securing the wheelchair after transferring the person to the vehicle interior. The top manufacturers of unoccupied wheelchair and scooter lifts include the Braun Chair Topper, Bruno Independent Living Aids, Harmar Mobility and Pride Mobility Products.

Occupied Wheelchair and Scooter Lifts

An occupied wheelchair and scooter lift allows the person to get in and out of the vehicle without having to get out of the wheelchair. This option is more suited for people unable to enter or exit the vehicle on their own or want the convenience of remaining in their chair or scooter.

The four main types of occupied wheelchair and scooter lifts are:

  • Standard Dual-Post: two hydraulic arms lift wheelchairs and occupants with combined weight up to 800 pounds. Known for reliability and stability but doesn’t stow out of the way, occupying space otherwise needed by the front passenger to recline.
  • Single-Post Split-Platform: one hydraulic arm installed near the rear of the vehicle to stow easily when not in use. Allows for easy exiting by other passengers without the need to deploy the lift.
  • Dual-Post Split Platform: a two hydraulic arm lift designed for stability and functionality. The platform folds flat into a horizontal position, leaving the access window with a clear view of the outside while the lift is locked.
  • Under-Vehicle: mounts underneath the vehicle under the front passenger seat and rotates out to allow access for the occupied wheelchair. Doesn’t infringe on interior space, making it an ideal choice for large families.

Driving Aids and Devices

Mobility conversions for an SUV require a variety of driving aids and devices. A combination of aids are used to customize the SUV, making it easy for an individual to not only get in and out of the vehicle, but to also drive independently.

Four categories of driving aids and devices are:

 

  • Hand Controls: transfers foot pedal controls to the steering wheel to hands for acceleration and braking.

 

  • Steering Devices: alters steering wheel controls to make one-handed driving safe and simple.
  • High-Tech Driving Systems: reduces the effort needed in conducting primary or secondary driving controls such as reduced-effort steering or powered transmission shifters.
  • Left Foot Accelerators: allows the left food to control acceleration and deceleration for individuals unable to maintain full control with their right foot.
  • Other Driving Aids: alterations such pedal, gear shift or turn signal extensions making it easier to reach for controls and properly use them.

 

 

Adaptive Seating Systems

Adaptive seating systems are essentials to saving time and frustration in having to transfer from the wheelchair to the passenger or driver’s seat. These are fully automated systems that swivel seats for easy access with the touch of a button. Adaptive seating systems still require a place to stow the wheelchair, often utilizing an unoccupied lift system.

Wheelchair and Safety Restraints

Safety restraints, sometimes referred to as tie-downs, are essentially the seat belt for wheelchairs, keeping them in place during the various accelerations, turns and stops on a trip. It is important for any vehicle transporting one or more wheelchair passengers to mount compliant restraints.

Three types of restraints used in wheelchair accessible SUVs and vans are:

  • Automatic Restraints: a base unit allows the wheelchair to be mounted and locked via an interface bracket and is released with electronic release mechanisms. Not every wheelchair is capable of locking with an automatic restraint.
  • Manual Restraints: universally used restraint system consisting of four belts locking the seat to the floor. Needs third-party assistance to secure the belt restraints to the floor and the entire system must be undone before the wheelchair can safely exit the vehicle.
  • Occupant Restraints: modified seat belts that consist of a lap and shoulder belt to keep either wheelchair occupants or able-bodied passengers secure in transit. Seat restraints like these are often modified but must comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).

Remember that motor vehicle law requires every passenger to be properly restrained. Failure to do so in any state including Washington, Oregon or California will result in penalties and fines. A wheelchair can weigh more than 600 pounds when occupied. Of course, this is contingent on the type of wheelchair and the weight of its occupant. The passenger’s inertia in the chair is dramatic during an accident. This is why specialized restraints are required to keep the entire wheelchair and its occupant restrained while the vehicle is in motion.

Best-Selling SUV for Wheelchair Access

Most standard-sized SUVs can be fit for wheelchair access. As long as the overall height, width and other accessibility ADA requirements are met, you can modify an existing SUV. With that said, accessibility device leaders have partnered with several major auto manufacturers to create dealer-ready wheelchair accessible SUVs.

Ford Explorer and BraunAbility MXV

The Ford Explorer has the title of being the first volume-produced wheelchair accessible SUV that has hit the market. Ford designed the model Braunability MXV to be ready-to-drive off the lot with wheelchair accessibility.

To appropriately modify the vehicle, the middle row of seating is removed. Doing this doesn’t significantly take away passenger seating since the third row of seating remains intact. Both front seats are completely detachable providing access points for either mobility drivers or passengers. Removing the front passenger seat also offers extra room for a middle seat wheelchair passenger.

BraunAbility, the mobility device specialty manufacturer partnered with Ford, mounts the BraunAbility MXV transmission shifter along with a sliding console. This console adjusts to different positions tailoring it to the needs of the driver and his abilities.  

Pricing for the Ford Explorer BraunAbility starts around $60,000 for basic passenger wheelchair access.  Adding standard hand controls increase costs from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the exact modifications.

VMI Honda Pilot

The Honda Pilot has been the minivan alternative for families since it rolled out with third-row passenger seating. This SUV is loved because families like its stylish design and rugged build allowing it to go almost anywhere with a spacious interior and V6 engine. Together with a mobility device manufacturing leader VMI, Honda developed the VMI Honda Pilot Accessibility, the utility vehicle of choice for many consumers seeking wheelchair accessibility off the dealership show floor.  

The VMI is fitted with an in-floor ramp that remains stowed while in transit. Even with an occupied wheelchair in place, the VMI Pilot model feels roomy and offers excellent visibility. The front passenger seat is removable, allowing for even more space or front wheelchair accessibility. Even with a wheelchair occupant, the Pilot retains its efficient towing capacity at 3,500 pounds.

Pricing for the VMI Honda Pilot Accessibility starts in the mid-$50,000s making it a more cost-effective solution compared to its Ford rival. This vehicle is not standardized for driver mobility and requires additional modifications to allow driver wheelchair accessibility.

Freedom Motors GMC Yukon or Chevrolet Suburban

Freedom Motors has rolled out two partnerships for factory-ready accessibility SUVs. The GMC Yukon or Chevrolet Suburban are both known for their size and lifestyle capacity, holding up to seven able-bodied passengers. Safety is the number one priority at Freedom Motors with wheelchair trucks and SUVs having 750-pound lift capacity exceeding ADA standards of 600-pounds.

These SUVs offer superior height clearance and innovative fast entry systems, deploying lifts within 15 seconds. These are industrial workhorse lifts with industrial-grade hydraulic systems made to withstand even the coldest of temperatures. Four-wheel drive and towing packages are options with these SUVs originally designed to be camping and fishing family cars.

Freedom Motors SUVs are more expensive compared to its competitors with base model pricing starting at $78,000. These are bigger and heavier vehicles compared to the Ford and Honda SUV options.

What Is A Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist

Driving a modified SUV is not as intuitive as getting into the car and pulling out of the parking spot. It requires learning new ways to perform actions that have otherwise become second nature. Instead of using your feet for acceleration and braking, you may use your hands if your SUV isn’t just accessible for a wheelchair but also designed for mobility driving.

A Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist is a unique certification developed by The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (ADED). There are only around 370 active CDRSs in North America, which means you should when buying an accessibility SUV to make sure you are dealing with the best-trained individuals regarding your mobility and safety. Every CDRS completes 30 hours of education requirements, passes a certification exam and continues with 30 hours of continuing education every three years.

A Driver Rehabilitation Specialist does many of the same things as the CDRS does but hasn’t obtained the actual certification. There are approximately 700 DRSs in North America. The role of either the CDRS or Driver Rehabilitation Specialist is to work with you to plan, develop, coordinate and implement the right driving devices, accessibility modification and added aids into a new or used vehicle.  

Both a CDRS and a DRS serve as an evaluator and educator in the process of adapting cars, trucks, and SUVs into wheelchair accessible vehicles. Their duty isn’t just to sell a product and install it, but to instead aid in finding the right product to improve accessibility, mobility and teach drivers and passengers how to safely integrate product use on a daily basis.

Best Option: Buying or Converting

When first discussing the option of getting a wheelchair accessible vehicle, the question of buying an already equipped SUV or converting an existing vehicle always comes up. There are a couple of considerations to think about when tackling this issue.

Consider the longevity and reliability of the existing vehicle. No one wants to be on the side of the road broken down; this is even worse if you are maneuvering a wheelchair. The investment of the conversion may not pay for itself over the remaining lifespan of an existing truck or SUV.

Buying a pre-modified wheelchair minivan or SUV is an option if you don’t want to convert an existing car. But, you will need to make sure the pre-modified vehicle meets the needs of drivers and passengers. If not, further modification is required, which means more money put into the vehicle. If you can’t find what you are looking for and your existing vehicle is nearing the end of its usefulness and reliability, buying a new SUV and converting it exactly as needed is the best option.

Maintaining Your Wheelchair Accessible SUV

Every vehicle must go in for regular maintenance so it continues to perform optimally. When it comes to a wheelchair accessible vehicle, this means getting more than just an oil change and tires rotated. Specialized technicians should inspect and perform routine maintenance on all adaptive equipment in your SUV or van.

Always work with technicians who are certified by the manufacturer. When a service technician is certified, he is trained on the specific requirements to install, maintain and fix that part. Certification provides the vehicle owner with the confidence to know the job is done right.

Properly Insuring Your Wheelchair Accessible SUV

Insuring a car, truck or SUV is usually pretty straight forward. You call the insurance company and list the year, make, and mode of the vehicle and provide other basic information about the car and the primary driver’s history to get a rate. Things become slightly more complicated when you have a modified van or SUV because you have expensive equipment added to the vehicle not priced into most standard insurance quotes.

Understanding How Auto Insurance Works

In an accident where the modified vehicle’s driver is not at fault, the other party’s insurance will pay for the repairs to your vehicle including modifications. However, if the person driving the modified vehicle is at fault, the car must have collision coverage. This often has a deductible as part of shared costs.

If your insurance company has not underwritten the vehicle to include the modifications, damages to lifts and devices might not be covered. When buying or converting an SUV with attached components and devices, it is important to involve your insurance company. Receipts may be required to document the conversion value so the vehicle can be restored to the modified condition after an accident.

Note that if the vehicle is stolen, damaged by vandals or something like a tree falling on it, comprehensive coverage is what pays for repairs. Collision and comprehensive are often optional coverages unless the vehicle is financed or leased. Make sure the investment made into conversion is protected with the right insurance policy.

Coverage for Wheelchairs or Scooters in an Accident

The wheelchair itself may not be covered by auto insurance but may be covered by your health insurance plan. It is wise to ask these questions to both the auto insurance company and your health insurance provider prior to finalizing coverage and premium commitments.

Costs to Convert an SUV to Wheelchair Accessible

The average range is $2,000 to $20,000 to convert a truck, van or SUV into a wheelchair accessible vehicle. Considerations for cost depend on the type of vehicle, the modification types, and technology used. A conversion to get a vehicle into the SUV with a lift is not as complicated as converting an SUV into a mobility car.  

With new SUV models on the market that are already modified with new vehicle factory warranties when you drive off the lot, make sure to compare prices between buying a new wheelchair accessible SUV or modifying an existing or used one.

Financing and Grants for Handicap Accessible Vehicles

For the most part, health insurance does not help to pay for the cost of a new wheelchair accessible vehicle. This limitation extends to both Medicare and Medicaid leaving disabled persons at a disadvantage in getting the right options to maximize a healthy lifestyle and independence. The most that health insurance providers will do is pay for part of all of the cost of the actual wheelchair. Everything else is the responsibility of the individual or party buying the vehicle.

Fortunately, there are some options for grants and financing of modified vehicles. Most states have plans that combine both grants and assistance programs with specialized financing options. This can become a complex financial transaction mixing a personal vehicle loan with modification equipment financing and state grants.

Mobility vehicle costs are a significant roadblock for most consumers considering a new vehicle. When you form a relationship with R&J Mobility, you benefit from their many years of experience with various programs and options for financing. They know the ins and outs of financing your wheelchair accessible vehicle.

Assistance Programs in Your State

There are many different state and federal programs to assist you in the purchase of a wheelchair accessible SUV. Throughout the West Coast in Washington, Oregon, and California, you can contact your NMEDA certified dealer, R&J Mobility to review the right wheelchair accessible SUV for your needs and how to pay for it.

Every state has an Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, a state-funded program focused on assisting anyone with personal disabilities or caring for a disabled person to find transportation options regarding work commuting.  

The Veterans Administration has programs offering up to $18,000 for qualified disabled veterans who need financial assistance for mobility equipment. Regarding an SUV, the Automotive and Special Equipment Adaptive Grant can offset the cost to purchase or modify your vehicle of choice.

Check with mobility device and vehicle manufactures. In the same way that able-bodied consumers buy vehicles with factory rebates, wheelchair accessible vehicles may also be eligible for rebate programs.

Although health insurance and Social Security benefits don’t pay for modifications, check with your social worker regarding any government funded assistance programs. Local grants could cover some of the costs of specific mobility aids and devices. If the disability was the result of a workers’ compensation claim or an auto accident, talk to the claims administrator as you may be eligible for a mobility vehicle purchase through the claim.

Getting Financing Help from Authorized Dealers

Authorized dealers often have the best information in your area regarding the resources available to you when looking to buy or modify a truck, van or SUV for wheelchair accessibility. Most wheelchair accessible SUV purchases require some sort of bridge financing to pay the difference between what other benefits cover and the final cost of the vehicle.

Work closely with your certified mobility specialist at R&J Mobility to fully utilize every financial resource available to you. We’ll help get you back in the driver’s seat.

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