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Transporting a Scooter or Power Wheelchair

Jacqueline A. Hall, MS, OTR/L, ATP -- Seattle, WA

Most power mobility devices have an operational range of 8 to 16 miles depending on the durability and size of the device, the user weight, and the environment. The range is similar to miles per gallon in a vehicle – higher speeds transporting heavier weights on variable terrain will lower the overall range. Power mobility users benefit from greater access to community services near their residence, however, often want to go to a location that is beyond the device’s range therefore requiring public or private transportation. Cities and counties offer both accessible regular bus service, and more custom “door to door” service with smaller accessible buses or vans.

Private transportation is frequently more convenient than using the bus system however not all devices are easily loaded into a vehicle. Veterans being provided with a power wheelchair or scooter need to decide the best method for transporting themselves and the mobility device for medical care or completing routine daily activities in the community. The VA’s decision to provide power mobility equipment is based on medical need, and this is also considered when providing equipment to assist with transporting a power wheelchair or scooter. Transportation of power mobility should be considered carefully, and discussed fully with others such as your family and/or caregivers whom you will be asking to do the hands-on work.

What are some power mobility considerations?

Three primary factors for transporting power mobility are your physical ability to load a device (or availability of family/caregiver help), the type of power mobility device you own, and the type of vehicle you plan to use. Consider the following factors:

  • How often will you use the scooter or power wheelchair – is using a manual wheelchair a better option?
  • Will you need to purchase a different vehicle to make full use of your power wheelchair or scooter?
  • How is your health, and/or how is the health of the person who will be loading and unloading your power mobility equipment?
  • If you have a scooter and own a van, can you transfer to a van seat? (Please note: Riding on the scooter in a van is against safety regulations in many states.)
  • If your vehicle cannot accommodate a lift and your power mobility device, will you or a care provider be able to disassemble/load/unload/assemble the device at each location you stop in the community?

What are typical physical requirements to load/unload a scooter or use a vehicle lift?

Many scooters are easier to transport because they weigh less and can be broken down into smaller parts to load into a vehicle. Typically, the person transporting the scooter needs to be able to:

  • Stand next to the vehicle with or without support for up to 5 minutes
  • Lift up to 50 pounds (max weight of most scooter parts is 45 pounds)
  • Kneel or work at ground level
  • Lift objects 2 to 3 feet off the ground (if disassembling the scooter)
  • Lift objects into/out of the back seat of a car, car trunk, hatchback, or van

If you cannot lift the scooter parts into the vehicle, there are electric scooter lifts available for both inside or outside of the vehicle. Vehicle requirements are addressed a little later on.

What are typical physical requirements to load/unload a power wheelchair or use a vehicle lift?

There are a greater range of power wheelchair brands and models, the majority of which cannot be disassembled for transport and are significantly heavier than a scooter. The few lightweight models (use a joystick to operate) have an overall weight similar to scooters and break down into 4 to 5 pieces, with the heaviest being around 40 pounds to lift. Typically, the person loading and unloading the power wheelchair needs to be able to:

  • Stand next to the vehicle with or without support for up to 5 minutes
  • Lift up to 50 pounds (max weight of most wheelchair parts is 45 pounds)
  • Kneel or work at ground level
  • Lift objects 2 to 3 feet off the ground (if disassembling the wheelchair)
  • Lift objects into/out of the back seat of a car, car trunk, hatchback, or van

Most power wheelchairs cannot be taken apart and weigh significantly more than a scooter (200 to 500 pounds). In most cases, a vehicle lift (usually external) is required to transport a power wheelchair.

What are the vehicle considerations for transporting a power mobility device?

As an extension to your power mobility device, vehicle lifts can be life-changing pieces of equipment that will afford you freedom and movement no matter what your needs and physical limitations.

The most important information beside the details of your power mobility device is the year, make, and model of the vehicle you want to have the lift installed on. Every model of wheelchair and scooter lift for a vehicle has its pros and cons, so making the right choice involves trade-offs. Internal vehicle lifts may reduce needed internal vehicle storage, passenger seat availability, and visibility. Some external lifts require installation of heavy duty shock absorbers to compensate for the tongue weight (downward force on the receiver created by the lift and the power mobility device), and will significantly increase the vehicle length.

How do you use portable ramps for private vehicles?

A scooter or power wheelchair can also be loaded into a private vehicle using a portable ramp. The ramp must be of an adequate length to safely load and unload the device. To determine the appropriate ramp length for safely loading the scooter or power wheelchair, you should work with the clinician who is prescribing your power mobility device. 

For safety reasons, the power mobility user should NEVER ride or drive their scooter or wheelchair up a portable ramp into the vehicle. The user should set the gears into a freewheel mode and push it up the ramp and into the vehicle. Although most lifts operate with an electric motor, the user will likely need to be able to:

  • Stand next to the vehicle for 3 to 5 minutes
  • Have adequate hand function to attach the lift docking bracket to the scooter or wheelchair, and push the lift control buttons
  • Walk from the front to the rear of the vehicle and vice versa

Are there wheelchair accessible transportation services?

If use of a private vehicle is not available, or you are unable to safely operate a vehicle lift, a second option is to use a wheelchair accessible transportation service. Many larger cities and counties have specially designated buses for individual wheelchair or scooter users to be transported to different locations within the community. These programs are usually designed following accessibility standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and ADA Standards for Accessible Guidelines (ADAAG), as revised.

Customers must meet specific eligibility criteria established by the city or county that may include: needing the assistance of another person to ride the bus, the inability to use steps to get on/off the bus, the inability to access a bus stop, or the inability to transfer out of a scooter or power wheelchair once on the bus. There are three primary disadvantages to accessible bus programs:

  • Usually there are specific weights and size limitations for the power mobility device (Combined weight of device and user usually needs to be under 800 pounds)
  • The ride typically must be scheduled one to seven days in advance
  • Other individuals might also be picked up en route, resulting in a longer ride to/from home

Are there public transportation options?

A third option for transporting a scooter or a power wheelchair is public transportation. Most cities now have buses available for use that are equipped with wheelchair lifts. In general, you will be expected to independently load and unload your wheelchair or scooter within a 2 to 3 minute time period. Assistance is usually available for securing the mobility device within the bus. Be aware that buses cannot operate a wheelchair lift on a hill, so you should go to an accessible bus stop on level ground.

Are there VA resources to help me with this process?

The use of power mobility frequently means a change in the type of transportation you are currently using. For Veterans, the Prosthetics and Sensory Aids Service (PSAS) within the VA is a good resource for information about eligibility for lifts and vehicle modifications. A Veteran who would like to be evaluated for transportation options for their power mobility device should contact their facility’s mobility clinic program to schedule an evaluation. You will be scheduled with the appropriate service provider who may be a physical therapist, occupational therapist, recreation therapist, or driver training specialist. 

The clinician will assist you in determining whether an existing vehicle will be suitable for transporting the power mobility device and will recommend the appropriate vehicle and needed modifications. If a compatible lift is identified, the clinician will send a prosthetics request to their facility’s PSAS. If changing your existing vehicle is not an option at this time, then the clinician can recommend the appropriate private and public transportation options within your community. Being able to safely transport your scooter or power wheelchair is an important consideration to help you maximize the battery life of the device, travel longer distances, and maximize your independence in the community.