In the Market for New Wheels?

by Bill Norman on Fri, 2008-02-01 17:00

10 tips for acquiring an adapted vehicle

Honda Element
The “boxy” shape and economical interior design of the Honda Element lends itself to modification for wheelchair transport.

Accessible public transit, such as taxis and buses with adaptive equipment, unfortunately cannot always be relied on to show up when needed, even in urban areas. That means personal acquisition of an adapted vehicle becomes a serious consideration for people using wheelchairs.

Adapted vehicles come in a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes, configurations, capabilities and price ranges. Where to begin the selection process? Some basic issues need to be addressed.

1) Don’t rush your decision. Never buy an adapted vehicle, or the components for one, from a dealership or on the Internet on your first visit. Mike Krawczyk, marketing manager for Bruno Independent Living Aids, advises having a needs assessment done by a professional who deals in adaptive equipment. “You need to think not only about your present physical condition, but also about where you’ll be in two, three or more years,” he says. (For more on this, see “When Your Plan is a Van,” Quest March-April 2004.)

2) Several of the major U.S. auto manufacturers, including Ford and General Motors, offer rebates of up to $1,000 as part of their “mobility” programs. In addition, the Veterans Administration offers financial assistance (“Automobile Grants”) to veterans whose ALS is service-connected. And don’t forget that the cost of vehicle adaptations is tax deductible on federal taxes.

3) If buying a van or minivan, the adaptations most likely to be needed include a ramp or wheelchair lift; sufficient room inside to allow pivoting the chair; tie-downs in the floor to secure the chair during transit; and enough height to ensure head clearance.

4) Power rather than manual adaptive equipment, such as power tie-downs, can help people preserve their independence longer. But if cost is a concern, go with manual equipment that can be operated by a friend or family member, suggests Frank Baughman, sales support manager for Freedom Motors USA. “You’re not hoping to achieve total independence. You’re most interested in getting from point A to point B without having to spend a lot of cash.” Because of ALS’ sometimes rapid progression, adapted driving controls may not be a good investment.

5) Cars can be adapted with rotating seats that pivot 90 degrees and descend outside the car door, allowing the person with ALS to be transferred to the seat from a wheelchair. The seat then rises and re-enters the vehicle. One model is the Turning Automotive Seating system from Bruno Independent Living Aids.

6) Consider buying used. A brand spanking new $40,000 machine depreciates dramatically as soon as it’s driven off the dealer’s lot.

7) Or don’t buy at all – lease or rent. Vehicle leases usually run two and three years, but in addition to the “advertised” leases so common in the newspaper, savvy shoppers may be able to swing a “negotiated” lease that requires less money up front, lower monthly payments and less cost to operate the vehicle over the span of the lease. The downside, of course, is that the vehicle reverts to the lessor when the lease is up. A good reference for examining the benefits and possible pitfalls of leasing is www.carinfo.com. Rentals also are an option; longer-term rentals tend to be more economical. (To learn more about leasing and rental options, see "Show Me the Money," Quest July-August 2006.)

8) When buying, haggle separately for the vehicle alone (with no adaptive equipment). Once bargaining for the vehicle has been finalized, purchasers can continue with compiling a package of add-on gear. Why bother? Dealers sometimes offer a “complete” or “lump sum” package with all the adaptive bells and whistles strapped on at the time of purchase. That gives them the opportunity to mark up and blend costs of the added accessories, and perhaps the vehicle, too. Best to start with two separate and distinct commodities. People who plan to trade in an existing vehicle to purchase an adapted one still should keep the transactions separate. That is, don’t even bring up the topic of a trade-in until the dealer is at his/her rock bottom price for the new machine.

accessible van
This van has been adapted with a rear wheelchair entry ramp.

9) When negotiating for the cost of adaptive components (ramp, tie-downs, etc.), including installation, compare the costs of these items among several different dealers so you’ll have some leverage when horse trading for the lowest price.

10) “Credit insurance” isn’t mandatory, no matter what the dealer may say. This insurance pays off a vehicle loan in case the borrower dies or becomes too disabled to make payments. In addition, you may not need to agree to a “mandatory” arbitration agreement. These agreements require customers, in the event of a dispute, to submit their case to an arbiter who is usually selected in advance by the dealership. Customers are required to waive their right to sue, to appeal or to participate in a class action lawsuit. In recent years, mandatory arbitration agreements have been challenged in court in areas such as employment, insurance policies, apartment rentals and credit card applications. Check the fine print in contracts carefully to ensure that an arbitration agreement requirement isn’t tucked away among the verbiage.

The process of acquiring an adapted vehicle to transport someone with ALS can be demanding and time-consuming, but the amount of effort you expend will have direct payoffs in the convenience and level of care you’ll experience later.

Bill Norman
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