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Clifford Brubaker, Ph.D.

National Wheelchair Transportation Safety Center Established at the University of Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH, December 27, 2001 — The University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences announced today it received a five-year $4.5 million grant from the federal government to study ways to make motor vehicle travel safer for the estimated 1.7 million wheelchair users in the United States.

Researchers will develop ways to make traveling by automobile, van, mini-van and most forms of public transportation safer for those who remain seated in their wheelchairs while in transit. While a great amount of effort and money has been allocated for safety in private automobiles and in public transportation, little has been done to protect those who use their wheelchairs as their primary seat during travel.

The grant, from the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), will establish the new Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Wheelchair Transportation Safety (RERCoWTS) within the rehabilitation science and technology department of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. The University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) also will participate in the study.

This grant is the second of its kind awarded to Pitt. The previously awarded Rehabilitation and Engineering Research Center (RERC) grant of $4.5 million focuses on improving wheeled mobility and seating.

"This grant further establishes the University of Pittsburgh as the primary center for research to improve wheelchair technology to meet the needs of people who use it," said Clifford Brubaker, Ph.D., dean of SHRS. "The collective work of SHRS faculty contributes to the improvement of safety and utility of wheelchairs. We believe that this contributes to quality of life for the more than a million and a half people with disabilities in the U.S. who use wheelchairs daily for mobility."

"Our goal is to improve the level of safety and independence for those using their wheelchair as a motor vehicle seat," said Gina Bertocci, Ph.D., director of RERC at Pitt. "We will address wheelchair securement in a vehicle as well as occupant restraint."

Dr. Bertocci, who is also assistant professor of rehabilitation science and technology and director, Injury Risk Assessment and Prevention Laboratory at Pitt, will direct the new center, while Douglas A. Hobson, Ph.D., associate professor emeritus of rehabilitation science and technology and Larry Schneider, Ph.D., senior research scientist of the UMTRI, will be the RERC co-directors.

In addition to utilizing the University of Michigan's crash testing facility to gather data on crashes, the researchers will also use computer simulation models to study injury risk associated with using a wheelchair as a motor vehicle seat.

Dr. Bertocci and her team will work to design a universal docking device for use in public transportation vehicles, which would replace a variety of current methods that are cumbersome and require a wheelchair user to seek assistance. New systems will be investigated that allow independent wheelchair securement, including a docking mechanism.

"Currently there is no reliable database that we can use to determine the frequency and types of associated injuries suffered by wheelchair users in motor vehicle accidents," Dr. Bertocci said. "As part of the grant we will conduct an epidemiological study of motor vehicle accidents involving wheelchair-seated travelers. Detailed accident scene investigations will also be conducted so that we can assess equipment performance and resulting wheelchair user injuries."

Priorities of RERCoWTS include:

  • Investigate and report on the incidence, extent and nature of injury of wheelchair riders due to motor vehicle accidents, making a distinction between the cause of the accident, the cause of injury, the type of vehicle or transportation service involved and the vehicle size and weight. From these data recommendations will be developed for ways to minimize injury;
  • Investigate and report on safety issues related to wheelchair-seated occupants subjected to side and rear impact crashes;
  • Investigate, develop and evaluate universal securement interfaces that would enable wheelchair and scooter users to safely and independently secure their wheelchairs and scooters to motor vehicles;
  • Investigate and compare methods for testing the crashworthiness of after-market and customized wheelchair seating systems and peripheral devices and, if found to be viable, develop strategies for integrating these into existing voluntary wheelchair performance standards;
  • Investigate, develop, and evaluate integrated occupant restraint systems that are independent of the vehicle and easy for wheelchair-seated occupants to operate and investigate the use of new or existing voluntary performance standards that would address problems associated with wheelchair-seated occupants subjected to side and rear impact crashes.

Dr. Bertocci and her associates will also enlist the help of several transportation agencies and school districts, including the Port Authority of Allegheny County, Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District of Alameda County, Cal., Hampton Roads Transit in Virginia; the Iowa State Department of Education; Chicago Public Schools and the Washentaw Intermediate School District in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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