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January 10, 2002

SHRS to study wheelchair safety in motor vehicles

Pitt's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) last month 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.

The grant, from the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research, will establish the new Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Wheelchair Transportation Safety within the rehabilitation science and technology department of SHRS.

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, 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, director of RERC at Pitt. "We will address wheelchair securement in a vehicle as well as occupant restraint."

Bertocci, who also is assistant professor of rehabilitation science and technology and director of the Injury Risk Assessment and Prevention Laboratory at Pitt, will direct the new center. Douglas A. Hobson, associate professor emeritus of rehabilitation science and technology, and Larry Schneider, senior research scientist of Michigan's 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 use computer simulation models to study injury risk associated with using a wheelchair as a motor vehicle seat.

Bertocci and her team will work to design a universal docking device for use in public transportation vehicles, which is expected to replace a variety of current methods that are cumbersome and require 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," 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 also will be conducted so that we can assess equipment performance and resulting wheelchair user injuries."

Bertocci and her associates also will enlist the help of several transportation agencies and school districts.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 9

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