This regular feature will focus on disabled motoring matters, giving readers inside info on disabled-friendly vehicles, hand control devices, driving and safety. In this issue, QASA’s Subaru Forrester is reviewed.
In preparing this story, I relied to some extent on my own experience as a motoring journalist. I also had some initial discussions with a few experienced disabled drivers, both paras and quads. They told me that, besides basic technical factors like automatic transmissions or power steering, there are numerous key physical dimensions in a vehicle – its accessibility – that need to be measured against a disabled person’s level of mobility and ability. These could ultimately influence a person’s choice of which vehicle to buy, or hire.
The most important dimensions to consider involve those affecting access to the driver’s seat, usually from a wheelchair. Firstly, the driver’s door needs to open very wide so that the wheelchair can park alongside the driver’s seat. Secondly, the lower door sill should be narrow enough so that the driver can easily traverse the gap between the wheelchair seat and driver’s seat. Unassisted paraplegics generally don’t have a problem with this, while unassisted quadriplegics generally do. Here, a sliding board may be necessary to bridge the gap, so to speak.
The third dimension is the seat height. Both quads and paras will have a problem trying to access a seat that is very low, such as in a sports car, or very high, such as in a large 4x4.
The Subaru Forrester all-wheel-drive station wagon fits somewhere between a normal sedan and a true 4x4. The seat height above ground level is about 53cm, which is 10 to 14cm higher than the average sedan. My paraplegic test driver could easily transfer from her wheelchair to the Subaru driver’s seat. This was probably made easier by the fairly narrow 11cm door sill. Her own car, however, is an Audi A3 with a door sill approaching 20cm in width. A quad would probably need an assistant or sliding board to access the Audi cockpit.
Where to stow the chair?
An interesting question arises once the disabled driver is behind the wheel. What to do with the wheelchair? My test driver, a supple and fiercely independent paraplegic, simply unclips the wheels, folds the Quickie chair, then lowers the car seat backrest, lies back and manhandles the whole lot, one by one, over her body onto the back seat. Are there any alternatives to this besides a wheelchair roof rack or a live assistant?
The Subaru’s front seats are not the bucket type, but do have slightly curved sides on the seat and backrest for lateral support for the thighs and torso. The Subaru front doors are large and open very wide, so access is optimal.
Windows and doors
How does a quad with minimal finger control open or close an electric window or activate an inside door handle? The QASA Subaru has been given some nifty extension tabs glued to the window switches, so they are easier to manipulate. And the door handle levers have got nylon rope loops so that they can easily be tugged open.
Opening and closing a normal car boot poses no difficulty for a wheelchair user. However, a vertical-swinging rear door on a station wagon or hatchback can lift so high, it’s out of reach for a para in a chair. The ingenious solution is a 30 - 40 cm rope loop attached to the inside of the door. This enables a para to pull the door within reach.
Driving with hand controls for the first time – as an ‘able-bodied pseudo-para’ – is a novel experience. The hand control requires two basic actions of accelerating or braking. And it takes a few hours of practice to condition your right hand and arm to do the correct action to achieve the correct effect. In short, don’t accelerate when you need to brake!
Subaru cars are world renowned for their powerful horizontally-opposed flat four cylinder engines and permanent all-wheeldrive. The Subaru Forrester is a classic station wagon design and QASA’s version features a 2.5 litre petrol engine and a 4-speed automatic transmission. The allwheel-drive, coupled with ABS anti-lock brakes, makes the Forrester a safer road car, and of course a capable off-road vehicle too. All Forrester models have dual airbags.
Even with the automatic transmission, there is enough power to pull off in front at robots, when necessary. Under braking, the car feels stable at all times, with plenty of stopping power available under the pedal, thanks to the ABS. On high, the air conditioner in the Forrester is a blast of arctic blizzard. This should prove a blessing to quadriplegic drivers, who are prone to severe illness from overheating, due to the body’s reduced ability to regulate its own temperature. The cheapest automatic Subaru Forrester sells for R255 000.00. Disabled buyers can apply for a rebate of import taxes. This equates to approximately 20% off the showroom price. The import tax rebate issue will be explored in the next edition of Rolling Inspiration.