What’s the difference?
When it comes to describing wheelchair restraint systems to the average able bodied person, words like wheelchair seat belts, tie downs, securement systems and restraints can easily get intermixed with each other. Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, but there are subtle differences that can easily be explained. If you’re going to be transporting someone in a wheelchair or looking to purchase a wheelchair van for the first time, it’s a good idea to learn about restraint systems and how they are used to keep everyone safe.
Tiedowns (or Tie Downs)
Whether you use tiedowns as one word or two, wheelchair “tie downs” are the straps and hooks that connect wheelchairs to the floor of a vehicle. Some people also refer to these as wheelchair restraints. These are most often used as a 4-point tie down system. They are connected to strips of aluminum bolted to the floor of wheelchair vans known as “L-Track”. The L-Track has a grooved channel and machined holes about every two inches so that the tiedowns can quickly be attached to the floor in its desired position. As an alternative, some people use “floor anchors” with only one or a few holes for attaching each of the straps. Specially designed locking pins at the end of the straps are then moved from one hole to another to help with anchoring the wheelchair snuggly. For safety reasons, two tie downs in the front and two in the back are required. Metal “J- hooks” on the other end of the straps are used to attach the straps (or belts) to the wheelchair frame. The straps are then adjustable for a taught fit, keeping the wheelchair in place during the ride.
Retractable or Manually Adjusted Tie Downs Make a Big Difference
MobilityWorks recommends getting retractable tie downs in nearly all cases. They are much more user-friendly to work with and take much less time to secure the person in the chair. Unlike a manual strap, the mechanism inside of each retractor is self-tightening. While they do cost more, retractable tie downs are worth the investment and most people wish they had gotten them a lot earlier. The person in the chair can also be much more independent with retractables, as they are don’t require much effort to get the straps nice and tight – or to release them when reaching your destination.
Wheelchair Seatbelts (or Securement)
Not unlike automobile seatbelt systems, wheelchair seatbelts have a strap that goes across the chest area and one that goes across the waist. These are also referred to as occupant securement. The difference is that in many cases, the lap belt and shoulder belt are combined together with a single or dual-retractable device and L-Track connectors. This type of setup is designed specifically for wheelchair riders, who typically need longer straps if tied down in the middle of the vehicle. You should only purchase seatbelts from reputable manufacturers that meet federal safety guidelines and perform regular crash testing of their products.
Wheelchair Docking Systems
For people who don’t want to hassle of dealing with a 4-point tie down system, a docking device may be the answer. Docking systems are used by many people in wheelchairs who drive their own vehicle from their chair. Wheelchair passengers can also use a docking system. The system is basically a rectangular metal device that is mounted to the floor. It has a spring-loaded electronic hook that grabs on to a metal bolt (or pin) that is mounted to the bottom of the wheelchair. When the bolt is rolled into the docking device, the hook automatically closes around it, keeping the wheelchair in place. Wheelchair seatbelts are then used along with the docking system for additional securement. Docking systems generally include a push button electronic control module mounted on or near the dashboard notifying the driver and passengers when the wheelchair is locked down properly. The control module or quick release button on the docking device is then used to unlock the docking mechanism when reaching your destination.
Putting It All Together
With all of these securement options to choose from, the most important thing to remember is safety. Double check all of your connecting points and don’t be in a hurry. Always follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer. Whatever your method of wheelchair travel, an accessible minivan or full-sized handicap van with a lift, proper wheelchair securement is an absolute necessity – not only for the person in the wheelchair, but also for the safety of everyone else in the vehicle.