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What a road this has been. I had a family member in need of a new car. She’s not only heavy and tall, but unable to walk very far or lift her left leg due to spinal cord damage. Her 17-year-old Ford Explorer wasn’t able to handle the size of her new power wheelchair, and was quickly rusting out. So the search began for a new car. We thought this would be easy. We learned we were wrong.

There was also another problem… her neuropathy was quickly destroying the use of her left leg, and hopping -up into the SUV was becoming more and more problematic. What she needed something lower, but large enough to handle an oversized power wheel chair and lift. Should have been an easy decision: A Minivan! They’re lower to the ground than SUV’s, but have good cargo capacity. What a shock it was to find driver space in most of these vehicles was smaller than a Miata. Yes, there’s headroom. But, what good is it when your knees are jammed in to the steering column, and the seat only goes back a couple of inches.

Also..What the hell happened to steering wheels? In old cars, you could tilt them from almost level to scraping the top of the dash. Now, if you get 3 degrees of movement, you’re lucky. Is that supposed to be funny or insulting? This doesn’t just apply to ‘foreign’ cars, either; this is American vehicles, too. The SUV’s all seemed vastly superior in seating position, but she can’t use them- too high! We discovered she needed 3 things: a vehicle as low as a minivan, cargo space of the largest minivan available, but with the driver space of an SUV. I still can’t believe ‘driver space’ would ever be an issue for minivans.

Ford, Chevy, Hyundai, Toyota, Honda, Dodge… whatever. Months of looking- no luck. There were specialty shops that were gutting PT Cruisers and Honda Elements for wheelchairs, then reselling them at 50-grand a piece. No thank you. And of course, there were always handicapped equipment dealers wanting to sell her a conversion van with no driver’s seat. These ‘drive-from-your-wheelchair’ systems were tempting, but notquite the same. People seem to crash more when driving from a wheelchair. And there was another issue: she could still walk. “Why not just get it over with and go with the conversion van?”, I’d ask. “I’m not that handicapped!” she’d tell me, and off down the road we’d go again.

A day before we were about to take a half-hearted long trip to the nearest Kia, Mazda, and Nissan dealerships, I passed a really odd-looking vehicle while going to work. I immediately told her about it, and she checked it out. The “Chevy Uplander” isn’t advertised as an SUV or a minivan. From the outside, it appears to be something stuck in-between. It’s interior is pure minivan. But it isn’t a minivan- the engine is completely out front like an SUV, and not in the passenger compartment (but partially underneath the windshield- it’s odd). This gives the driver more legroom than a traditional van. The Uplander (aka.: Pontiac Montana SV6/Saturn Relay/Buick Terraza) seemed to be an excellent compromise. And, it had the greatest steering wheel tilt of any van we looked at.

The “driver space” issue was better, but not completely resolved. Even with it’s good attributes, driver accommodation still couldn’t match a truck. What do you do now? It’s obvious.

Move the seat!

The interiors of full size SUV’s and trucks would have been fine, but impossible for her to jump into. And, there doesn’t seem to be a large selection of ‘lowered’ trucks in our part of the state. On top of that, no minivan had a seat that went back far enough to accommodate her. Minivans seem to be built for smaller people. I had more Seat-To-Steering-Wheel distance in my old Mitsubishi Eclipse than most of these vans. We asked the dealership to re-mount the seat farther back. They refused, saying they don’t know how. We asked GM, but they said it must be done by the dealership. We asked a local handicapped-equipment dealership to do it. They specialize in vehicle modification and equipment installation. They refused, saying there was a liability problem with the seatbelt.

The seatbelt?

After arguing and threatening to back out of the deal, we discovered the secret. Any vehicle can be modified in this way. Seatbelt extenders are usually necessary to make-up for the new geometry of where the seatbelts are attached, and the new position of the driver. But, actually getting this done requires a specific procedure.

1. Purchase a car from an actual dealership (not from ‘Joe’s Used Cars’ on the corner)

2. Find a local handicapped-equipment installer

3. As part of the purchase agreement, have the dealership contact the manufacturer (GM, Ford, Honda, etc.) themselves, and request the modification. Corporate types generally won’t talk to buyers, or at least give them good info. Give the dealership the contact info for the installers.

4. The manufacturer will contact the installers directly, and certify that they can perform the modification.

5. The dealership can now transfer your vehicle to the installer. All this should be done before you technically take possession of the vehicle. If not, than it’s just you trying to get the vehicle modified on you own, and not the dealership (and Therefore..the manufacturer). This makes it an unwarrantable modification, technically. Best to leave it to the dealership.

6. Contact the installer to confirm the proper modifications are being made (in our instance, 5″ remount) and confirm, for them, that you will be obtaining seat belt extenders for the vehicle.

7. Get corporate phone number of your manufacturer’s seat belt program. Every manufacturer has a program like this as dictated by the American with Disabilities act. Finding it may take time (Google!). After you have the contact number, take it to the dealership, and request the extenders. Most will supply them for free. Yes, technically, the dealerships should know all about this program, and do the research (and ordering) for you. But from what I seem myself, and heard from other people, dealerships know how to play dumb very well when it comes to giving things away for free. The dealership will then order the extenders and give them to you.

8. Take possession of your new modified (and legal) car!

It seems like a horrible mess, but that’s what happens when government regulation and bureaucracy meets corporate bureaucracy. They don’t add, they multiply. Doesn’t help that car salesmen seem to change every week. No one really gets to learn their job. In the end, the process works. I hope this experience helps you if you’re fighting the same problems. Send me a comment if this helped you.

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