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Smoothing the Ride: UofL to study wheelchair transportation safety

January 8th, 2007

By Kevin Rayburn

Riding a public transit bus is 79 times safer than car travel, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Even so, bus rides have their moments of adventure as sudden stops and swerves cause the most sure-footed riders to fall into the aisles or against windows, metal poles and other structures.

But what if a person is seated in a wheelchair?

Even with the use of special lifts that help in boarding and designated areas where wheelchairs can be strapped down, wheelchair users still sometimes get injured.

“There really are few or no studies in scientific literature addressing the safety of people who remain in their wheelchairs while on buses or in other types of motor vehicles,” said Gina Bertocci, professor and endowed chair of biomechanics in the mechanical engineering department at the University of Louisville’s Speed School of Engineering.

Bertocci and research colleagues at collaborating universities could soon begin to close that information gap.

UofL, the University of Michigan and the University of Pittsburgh have secured a $5-million, five-year project grant to operate as a center dedicated to studying and improving safety for wheelchair users who ride in vehicles. They will operate as part of a federally funded network of research groups known as Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERC). RERCs are funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

Bertocci had been a RERC wheelchair transportation safety director while on the University of Pittsburgh faculty. She continued to do RERC-supported research when she came to UofL in 2004. The new grant expands UofL’s RERC role and makes Bertocci one of three directors of the center.

One of the center’s major projects will be a collaborative study with Louisville’s public transit agency, TARC (Transit Authority of River City).

With TARC’s cooperation, Bertocci and associates will study how wheelchair riders board, ride in and disembark from buses. They will study videotapes of riders captured by on-board cameras to analyze potentially unsafe situations and suggest preventive measures. The study also will perform in-depth analysis of wheelchair-related incidents occurring on TARC buses during the entire five years of the RERC grant, she added.

The project is a feather in Speed School’s cap.

Only the most advanced rehabilitation researchers can attain RERC designation, said mechanical engineering chair Glen Prater.

“From every measure by which we qualify research — grants-funding, duration, prestige, internal collaboration, external collaboration, intrinsic importance of the work, and potential for long-term program building — this is a milestone for our department and indeed, Speed School and UofL,” Prater said.

“This is really a unique research opportunity,” Bertocci said. “To my knowledge, there has never been a collaboration like this before between a university research team and a metropolitan transit agency.”

The center’s efforts also will include training of students and other researchers on wheelchair safety.

Eventually, manufacturers could use the study’s findings to improve wheelchair securement systems or bus designs; they will help transit personnel improve the safety and efficiency of wheelchair-related transit procedures, Bertocci said.

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