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Choices Growing for Disabled Drivers and Passengers

The business of adapting vehicles is thriving and car manufacturers are increasingly taking special needs into account when designing vehicles.


The organizers of last year's New York International Auto Show were searching for a hot topic, something that would set the event apart from the usual parade of new vehicles and automobilia.

The result: an exhibition of a dozen adaptive vans and other vehicles equipped for drivers with disabilities.

"It was amazing how many people came by," says Charles Riley II, editor in chief of We, a magazine for readers with disabilities.

Consider the statistics: In 1994, about 54 million people in the U.S. lived with some form of disability, according to the Census Bureau. Many of them are employed and in need of transportation.

Indeed, about 383,000 vehicles have some type of adaptive equipment to accommodate drivers or passengers with disabilities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That number is only expected to increase, especially as the population ages, prompting NHTSA to study the issue more intensely.

Last month, the agency announced its proposed modification rules for vehicles that must be altered to meet the needs of the physically disabled.

Under current law, dealers, repair businesses and others are forbidden from removing safety equipment and other features or from altering equipment in a way that might affect performance. But NHTSA can issue exemptions on a case-by-case basis if the aim is to adapt the vehicles to meet the needs of the disabled.

If the proposed rules go into effect, NHTSA would specify which modifications could be made, instead of issuing these case-by-case exemptions--thus providing more guidance to the estimated 400 modification businesses nationwide.

Meanwhile, those who adapt vehicles for a living say there are many reasons for optimism:

* Technology to adapt vehicles to drivers' special needs is improving.

* Car manufacturers are increasingly listening to the needs of adaptive drivers and taking them into account when designing vehicles. Helping them along are magazines and organizations for the disabled that issue ratings of vehicles best suited for adaptation.

* Those in the business of adapting vehicles are setting--and maintaining--higher standards.

The current issue of We magazine features its 1998 list of the top 10 adaptable vehicles, based on such factors as price, handling, reliability and access. They are Cadillac Seville luxury sedan; Chrysler 300M luxury sports sedan; Chevrolet Monte Carlo mid-size coupe; Ford Econoline E-150 full-size van; Mercedes-Benz ML430 sport-utility vehicle; Chevy Venture minivan; Ford F-Series Super Duty full-size pickups; GMC Sonoma compact pickup and its twin, the Chevy S-10; Toyota Land Cruiser sport-utility; and Volkswagen New Beetle subcompact.

Chatsworth-based Adaptive Driving Systems modifies vehicles for those with disabilities. After listening to customers over the years, President Chuck Kutz has developed his own "best" list.

Among minivans, Kutz says, Ford Windstar GLs are generally fine for adapting, as are the Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler Town & Country and Plymouth Grand Voyager. The modifications on each of these have been crash-tested according to government standards. Kutz sends full-size vans to a so-called second-stage manufacturer, which returns the vehicles to him for further adaptations.

Whatever the vehicle, the capacity to adapt has greatly increased, Kutz says. One common modification is to remove a passenger seat to accommodate a wheelchair. Adapters can install a throttle-and-brake system so that the driver can operate the vehicle by a lever; a different attachment allows operation entirely by wrist motion. And newer electrical ramps are more dependable than old-style power lifts, he says.

Kutz currently is modifying a van that can be partially controlled by voice commands. This enables the driver to speak his or her intent to make a left turn without touching the signal lever, for example.

The cost of adaptations?

Including the purchase price, modifying a minivan would start in the low $30,000s, Kutz says. The voice-controlled van, including purchase price, runs about $75,000.

Not all modifications are for the driver. In fact, the majority of Kutz's adaptations are to accommodate disabled passengers. Kutz recently modified a van for one of his sales consultants, Tom Hollenstein, who uses a wheelchair and relies on his attendant to drive him to business appointments.

To help customers find reputable dealers to modify vehicles, the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Assn. has developed a quality-assurance program, says Executive Director Becky Plank. Under the program, the Tampa, Fla.-based organization arranges site inspections of dealers, conducted by an independent engineering firm, to see if they meet association standards and to ensure that mechanics have been trained to perform specific modifications.

Plank's most important piece of advice: Do not purchase a vehicle until you are sure it can be modified to meet your needs. Once a week or more, she says, she gets a call from a consumer who bought a van with the hope of having it modified, and who later learned the modification wouldn't work on that particular model.

Potential customers can turn to a number of sources for advice on the modifications their vehicles will require. Among these are hospital rehabilitation programs and members of the Assn. for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, based in Edgerton, Wis.

Highway 1 contributor Kathleen Doheny can be reached vie e-mail at


Adaptive Driving Systems (818) 998-1026

Assn. for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (608) 884-8833

National Mobility Equipment Dealers Assn. (800) 833-0427

We magazine (800) WE-MAG26

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