Transporting Persons in Wheelchairs Poses a Safety Risk

For many Americans who are disabled or injured, the use of wheelchairs may be necessary in order to be mobile. While wheelchairs may provide a sense of independence, traveling across town, including from the hospital to a separate rehab center or home after a stay at the hospital, can be difficult. It may require using the services of an ambulance or van owned by the hospital or rehabilitation center or by a third-party transportation company - also known as an "ambulette" - contracted by the hospital to provide transportation services.

Transporting wheelchair users can pose a safety risk, however. If the wheelchair and the wheelchair user are not properly secured, the wheelchair user could suffer injuries should the transportation vehicle be involved in an accident (even a minor one) or travel over rough roads. Even travelling on smooth roads can lead to injury if the wheelchair or wheelchair user is improperly secured.

Safety risks posed to the person in the wheelchair may include hazards such as the rider sliding out of the wheelchair or a poorly secured wheelchair rolling in the cabin or tipping over. The injured wheelchair user could suffer head and neck injuries, broken bones or other serious injuries. Existing injuries could also be exacerbated.

Brinkley Study

Concerned about patient safety, a study conducted by Brinkley, Savoie, Hurvitz and Flanagan (Brinkley study) looked at the level of knowledge that wheelchair users and medical professionals - including therapists, caregivers, physicians and other professionals - possessed about wheelchair transportation safety.

The results of the study indicated that over two-thirds of wheelchair users and approximately half of medical professionals were not educated about best practices for safely transporting a wheelchair. Further, the study found that less than seven percent of either group was aware that there are established safety standards for both transportation and wheelchairs designed for transit. The study found that those that had knowledge of the standards followed them.

Ultimately, the study found a "poor level of knowledge about wheelchair transportation safety practices among" wheelchair users and medical professionals. And, that this lack of knowledge could compromise safety.

Safety Standards

The Brinkley study notes that in 1996 the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) established a set of design and performance recommendations - referred to as Recommended Practice 2249 (SAEJ2249) - for wheelchair tie downs and occupant restraint systems (WTORS). SAEJ2249 would seek to keep wheelchair users safe during transportation by recommending that WTORS:

  • Pass a 30-mph frontal impact test
  • Provide a mechanism for securing the wheelchair to the vehicle, such as tie-down straps
  • Include pelvic and shoulder restraints
  • Provide clear labels where appropriate
  • Provide instructions for properly securing the wheelchair to the vehicle

While securing a wheelchair is a first step in the process of keeping wheelchair users safe during transportation, if the wheelchair that is being secured isn't strong, wheelchair users may not be completely safe during transport.

The Brinkley study also noted that in 2000 the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) and Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) developed standards - known as the ANSI-RESNA WC/19 - for wheelchairs to be used in transportation. The engineers working on the ANSI-RESNA WC/19 standards sought to develop wheelchairs that were strong enough for, and had safety features for, safe transportation. The ANSI-RESNA WC/19 standards explain that wheelchairs should:

  • Pass a 30-mph frontal impact test
  • Provide four accessible wheelchair tie-down points so the wheelchair can be easily secured to the vehicle
  • Provide a crash-tested lap belt
  • Provide information discussing lateral stability
  • Provide clear labels were appropriate
  • Provide instructions for properly securing the wheelchair to the vehicle

While adhering to the proposed standards would greatly improve the safety of wheelchair users during transportation, the standards are voluntary. The standards are available to wheelchair and transport vehicle manufacturers; however, not every wheelchair or transportation vehicle will adhere to the SAEJ2249, ANSI-RESNA WC/19, or other available safety standards.

Liability for Injuries

Liability for the injuries suffered by the wheelchair user may rest with the driver of the transportation vehicle and with the owner of the transportation vehicle. A Missouri case suggests, however, that even if a wheelchair user is injured while being transported by a third-party transportation company, a hospital and/or its employees may also be liable, depending on the circumstances.

In Poluski v. Richardson Transportation, during transportation by a third-party transportation company between the hospital and a long-term care facility, a patient who had undergone a leg bone graft was injured when a makeshift sling holding up the patient's leg failed. The hospital neglected to inform the transportation company that a leg extender would be needed on the wheelchair to accommodate the patient's full-leg cast; a sheet was then used to create a sling for the leg. During transit, the bone graft shifted, which resulted in an additional bone graft surgery.

A Missouri court of appeals found that since the patient had not yet been discharged at the time the sling was put on the patient, the hospital could be held partially liable for the injuries suffered. The court said that the hospital owes a "duty of care to the patient in proportion to the patient's known needs" and that the hospital has an affirmative duty to protect a patient until the patient leaves the hospital's premises.

When a wheelchair user is injured while being transported, the injuries suffered may be severe. If you or a loved one is injured while being transported in a wheelchair, speak to an experienced personal injury attorney about seeking compensation for the injuries that are suffered. An attorney can help you seek compensation for medical bills, long-term care or rehabilitation, and pain and suffering from all parties that may be liable for injuries suffered.