Wheelchair: Seat Belt

Monday, August 10th, ©2009 Marcus Brooks
Seat Belt

No Kidding, a Seat Belt?

A seat belt? Why? For quite a while, I thought it would be silly to put a seat belt on my wheelchair. “Yeah, I’ve got bad hips,” I’d think, “but I’m not so disabled that I can’t keep my butt in a chair.” (Not yet, anyway.)

But lately, I’ve noticed an almost constant need to scoot back in my wheelchair’s seat. The little jerk of a quick stop or turn is enough to slide me out of position, especially when I’m headed down a ramp. Its only an inch here or there, but my sitting posture gets messed up pretty quickly. My back gets sore, and the sliding back and forth gets, well, abrasive. Also, the chair gets more tippy if I head down an incline while I’m sitting forward in the seat. I often have to squirm or stand up briefly to reposition myself.

To test the idea of fixing all this with a seat belt, I tried cinching myself to the seat with a tie-down strap. Sure enough, I could go all day without having to scoot back. Good idea, I decided.

I found an affordable plain seat belt at McMaster-Carr. It might be cheaper to get at a junk yard, but not easier! The belt I ordered comes with buckle, end brackets, and 7/16″ bolts and washers. A couple of big 2-1/2″ washers were also included; presumably to use as a backer if you had to mount the belts on thin sheet metal. I didn’t need them, as you’ll see.

My powerchair seat is actually a Wise Big Man boat seat. (Alas, though Bass Pro Shops had this model in several patterns, they were all camouflage.) One of my gripes about Wise’s seat designers (among others) is they think “big” only applies to width; their Big Man seat is a hefty 20″ wide, but a mere average 16″ deep. The first thing I did with this seat was unbolt its back brackets and reattach them with a couple of heavy angle steel extensions. The original bolt spacing makes a 2″ extension easy. I found the resulting 18″ depth comfortable, so there it is.

(By the way: those CLC zipper pouches on my powerchair’s arms are a matching camo pattern by pure coincidence. They were the best-suited pouch I found on Amazon.com.)

Seat Back Bracket Showing Brace Tube and Seat Belt Anchor, Inside View

Seat Back Bracket Showing Brace Tube and Seat Belt Anchor, Inside View

My next seat modification was to brace the back. My powerchair’s frame has a couple of front-to-back rails spaced about 5″ apart to accomodate the seat’s roughly 5″ almost-square bolt pattern. But the sides of the seat were unsupported in back, so the back corners would flex alarmingly when I leaned back. Since the seat back brackets now extended about 2″ behind the seat cushion, I simply bolted a piece of 1″ square steel tubing between the back brackets, using the holes that were left empty by moving the brackets back. This brace sits slightly above the frame’s rails, so it stops the seat back before it flexes too much.

All this leads to a happy circumstance, regarding seat belts. A couple of inches of relatively unobstructed heavy steel project back from either side of the seat cushion, ideal for anchoring a seat belt. I did have to hack away a corner of the cross brace tube to make room for the anchor nuts, but that wasn’t hard. I also had to reposition the chair’s side reflectors, but all in all this was a rather easy fix. The pictures should say the rest.

Seat Belt Anchor Bolt, Outside View

Seat Belt Anchor Bolt, Outside View

In practice, I’m finding the seat belt to be a very practical addition. I hadn’t realized how much caution I was using to accelerate and turn my chair, or run over bumps and whatnot. Not only do I now remain in a comfortable position, violent motions don’t seem to feed back to the joystick as much as they did. So although the chair is still rather jerky, I can maneuver somewhat more quickly, and with more confidence.

I have found that not shifting so much in the seat can also be a drawback. I can be more active in the wheelchair for longer periods, so there may be more stiffness when I finally get up. Also I feel more muscle pain in my lower torso than I did before. I am hoping these discomforts will lessen as I get used to the new configuration. Time will tell.

One concern remains. This seat belt installation might not hold if I’m riding in a bus or taxi that has an accident. The belt is anchored only to the seat, which is bolted to the frame’s rails well forward of the belt anchors. Eventually I might bolt that back seat brace tube to the rails. This would transfer an impact stress more directly to the chassis, and thence to the back tie-down loops.

I also worry a bit that the belt’s long end might dangle into the chair’s works and jam it. I might get the retracting model sometime, but just now I didn’t feel like paying extra for it.

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