What It Means, What It Doesn't Mean & How It Affects Your Clients' Choices

WC-19: Two letters, two numbers … a lot of vagueness and confusion. What exactly does the WC-19 standard mean? When a wheelchair has achieved the WC-19 standard, what exactly does that mean? What can you expect from that wheelchair? What can you safely tell your customers when they ask about crash-testing? Here's a primer on WC-19, including what a wheelchair has to do to meet this standard, how the standard could affect your clients' wheelchair — and adaptive automotive — choices, and resources to learn even more.

Q: What is WC-19?
WC-19 is the abbreviated name for a voluntary national (United States) standard called Section 19 ANSI/RESNA WC Volume 1: Wheelchairs used as seats in motor vehicles. The parties involved in developing the standard included the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the International Standardization Organization (ISO).

There is currently no federal standard to dictate how manual or power wheelchairs must perform when they're used as seats in motor vehicles — that is, when a person being transported in a car, van or bus is actually riding in the wheelchair at the time. Therefore, many wheelchair manufacturers have traditionally recommended that wheelchair users transfer out of their wheelchairs to ride in regular vehicle seats while the vehicles are in motion. However, transferring isn't always efficient or practical, either for the wheelchair user or the caregiver/vehicle driver, so many wheelchair users do routinely travel in motor vehicles while still in their wheelchairs.

In recognition of this fact, some wheelchair manufacturers have sought to make their products safer for this type of transport. The WC-19 standard seeks to describe minimum safety standards that wheelchairs need to meet to keep passengers safe while riding in a motor vehicle. While WC-19 is also concerned with everyday transport, the standard is more commonly known for its guidelines regarding passenger safety during motor vehicle crashes.

WC-19 is voluntary, so manufacturers are not obliged to produce wheelchairs that meet this standard.

A wheelchair that has met WC-19 standards is often referred to as a WC-19 wheelchair or a transit wheelchair. Manufacturers who want to be able to describe their products as WC-19 wheelchairs must subject the chairs to testing and pass that testing.

Q: What does the WC-19 standard require of wheelchairs?
In April 2000, the RESNA Subcommittee on Wheelchairs and Transportation (acronym SOWHAT — really!) announced it had created the WC-19 standard "that addresses the design and performance of wheelchairs used as seats in motor vehicles," according to a SOWHAT news release. SOWHAT went on to describe what the standard required of WC-19 wheelchairs:

  • "Four easily accessible tie-down points for facing forward securement in a motor vehicle." The wheelchair with those securement points had to be "dynamically crash tested at 30 mph with an appropriate size crash test dummy seated in the wheelchair." A wheelchair could also use additional securement methods, SOWHAT said, but those four tie-down points were mandatory.
  • The securement points must be "easily accessible using hook-type attachment hardware." In other words, a WC-19 wheelchair has to be so easily secured that vehicle drivers or caregivers will be willing and able to do it. Said SOWHAT: "Wheelchairs that comply with the standard will therefore not only make riding in a motor vehicle safer for the wheelchair user, but it will make it much easier and quicker for those involved in securing the wheelchairs in public transit vehicles."
  • "Information regarding a wheelchair's size and turning radius (must) be provided in the manufacturer's presale literature." SOWHAT reasoned that a wheelchair's dimensions and type of drive would impact the wheelchair user's ability to maneuver the chair within the relatively tight spaces of a van or bus: "The size and turning radius of a wheelchair may affect the ease of entering and exiting a motor vehicle, and maneuvering inside the vehicle into a forward-facing position at a designated tie-down station. Additionally, a wheelchair's lateral stability can affect the comfort and security of the user during travel, so the standard requires measurement and disclosure of lateral movement in a wheelchair tilt test."
  • "Anchorage of a pelvic belt that meets specific location and strength requirements." At the time of the original announcement of the WC-19 standard, SOWHAT gave a two-year notice that WC-19 wheelchairs had to provide such anchorage of that pelvic belt by April 2002.

According to SOWHAT, the WC-19 standard also "places design requirements on the size, mass and configuration of a wheelchair in that it must provide for a seated posture with a seatback angle of 30 degrees or less to the vertical; and have a total mass of less than 400 lbs.; have overall dimensions … such that the maximum length and width do not exceed 1,300 mm (approximately 51") by 700 mm (approximately 27") respectively." The WC-19 standard also includes, says SOWHAT, "a test for tie-down clear paths and proximity to sharp edges; a test for lateral stability; a test for turning radius; and a test for wheelchair accommodation of vehicle-anchored belt restraints."

Dr. Larry Schneider of SOWHAT also included a caveat: "It is important to view the new standard in the totality of daily wheelchair functions and uses, and the range of other standards to which all wheelchairs should comply. Wheelchairs must first serve as effective mobility devices. Transportation is only one daily activity though it introduces additional unique circumstances and requirements for wheelchairs and wheelchair occupants."

Q: Why aren't all wheelchairs developed to be WC-19 compliant?
Today's rehab technology suppliers and clinicians have a number of choices when trying to create a customized, personalized mobility system for a particular client. They may choose a power base from one manufacturer, add a seating system from another manufacturer, and then add positioning elements from a third manufacturer.

The compatibility of all these components is a huge benefit to the client, but ironically, all these choices can complicate the situation for a wheelchair manufacturer trying to develop a WC-19 chair.

A wheelchair trying to meet the WC-19 standard is tested in a very specific configuration using a specific set of components. If that set of components changes — for instance, if an RTS decides to add a headrest or swap out a seating system to better meet a client's clinical needs or comfort, or if a caregiver adds accessories — that original configuration is changed, and the wheelchair's ability to meet the WC-19 standard is potentially negated.

Wheelchair manufacturers have correctly pointed out that given the number of replaceable components available today, it is impossible to test their wheelchairs while taking into account every possible product combination an RTS or client might dream up.

Historically, most wheelchairs that have met the WC-19 standard have been manual wheelchairs, which are lighter in weight and don't have certain components, such as batteries, to contend with. In addition, manufacturers have put a lot of their WC-19 efforts into their pediatric chairs, due to the need to safely transport kids to school. However, more and more power chairs are now being designed with securement points, in obvious recognition of the importance of transport.

Q. How does WC-19 affect — and help — consumers?
Ideally, consumers who understand what the "WC-19" label means will be more educated when they make their purchasing choices. And understanding the standard may prevent consumers or caregivers from modifying a WC-19 chair without first checking with their mobility dealer or rehab technology supplier.

If consumers want more information on the WC-19 standard or on wheelchairs that have achieved the WC-19 rating, direct them to the Web site for the ongoing Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Wheelchair Transportation Safety (www.rercwts.pitt.edu/WC19.html), which began in 2001 and will run five years. This user-friendly site is divided into four segments — consumers, prescribers, manufacturers of mobility devices, and transporters — to help visitors navigate more quickly, but everyone is welcome to view all the materials regardless of affiliation.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words — and a moving picture is worth perhaps a million — suggest consumers take a look at the videos of wheelchair testing, which shows crash-test dummies in action. Jargon about 30-mph sled tests and wheelchair securement points that sounds too technical to understand on paper suddenly makes a lot of sense after you see these clips. Who knows — these visual aids might make your customers think twice about modifying wheelchairs without consulting you or the manufacturer first, and may also encourage using proper restraint systems.

There's also a frequently asked question section for consumers to help them better understand WC-19 — such as, "Will I be denied access to transport vehicles if I do not have a WC-19 compliant wheelchair?" and "Do I always need to replace a WC-19 wheelchair following a crash or sudden stop?" (The answer to both is no.)

Safely using wheelchairs as seats in motor vehicles is a complex topic involving automotive manufacturers, adaptive automotive equipment manufacturers, wheelchair and scooter manufacturers, mobility dealers, rehab technology suppliers, clinicians, clients, caregivers and transit personnel. As with all complex topics, it takes a lot of work to figure out what role each member should and can play. And as with all complex topics, education and communication are critical first steps.

Sources for This Story

Sources for This Story

American National Standards Institute (ANSI)


Invacare Corp.


Pride Mobility Products

Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Wheelchair Transportation Safety, funded by the National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR). A partnership between the University of Pittsburgh, Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology, and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA)

Sunrise Medical

This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Mobility Management.

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