Automotive Accessibility Special

Steering Toward a Bright Future

Automotive Accessibility

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This time of year, with winter in retreat (we hope), days lengthening and skies brightening, our thoughts turn to the promise of the open road and its adventures.

Of course for mobility dealers, the open road is a passion, and their all-season calling is supporting consumers who need adaptive automotive equipment to make road trips possible, practical, safe and comfortable. That support comes in a variety of forms, from education to advocacy, to installing and servicing adaptive equipment and helping both drivers and passengers make the most of it.

As the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) geared up for its annual February conference — this year in Dallas — Mobility Management spoke to Chuck Hardy, the organization’s VP of quality assurance & compliance. On the table: New NMEDA requirements, anticipated highlights from Dallas, and that National Mobility Awareness Month project that has generated billions — yes, with a b — of online impressions in the name of education.

Attention to Quality

Hardy began by outlining more recent changes to NMEDA’s membership requirements — requirements that impact both mobility dealerships and automotive mobility manufacturers, since both types of businesses are eligible to join the organization.

“Over the past 12 months through its various committees, NMEDA has been strengthening its programs to not only assure the highest quality, reliability and safety to consumers, but also to fortify and elevate the brand of ‘QAP’ as the exclusive Quality Assurance Program in the mobility industry,” he said. “While there have been many developments and improvements to the various documents and policies, here are four of them that stand out.”

The first concerns a mobility dealer’s technicians.

“Beginning in 2016, QAP dealers will be required to have at least one NMEDA Certified Technician on staff,” Hardy said, explaining that the organization considers technicians the “life-blood” of the QAP provider.

“Technicians are not only the ones installing the adaptive equipment, but are also the ones interfacing directly with the client during fittings and servicing. Having a NMEDA Certified Technician raises the bar for our members to help set themselves apart from non-QAP dealers. It also strengthens NMEDA’s government relations case when approaching Veterans Affairs (VA), state vocational rehab programs, etc., and asking them to preference or endorse NMEDA-QAP dealers. We can say we require a higher standard of technical competency from our member service departments, where the actual modification work takes place. In fact, the program has been received so well that many of our dealers have made it mandatory for not only one, but all their technicians.”

Quality control was also the key point in a 2016 rules change regarding inspections.

“QAP Rules have been clarified and improved for final inspections of installations,” Hardy said. “While it was generally assumed that the physical inspection of an installed product was performed by someone other than the installing technician, the rules have been clarified to state that the inspection shall be performed by someone other than the technician who installed the product, and that the person performing the inspection is certified to the product installed or as a minimum has successfully completed all NMEDA quality assurance program training. The QAP committee felt it was important to clarify this practice in writing, to assure the customer that all installations are independently inspected for quality, and that the inspections were objective.”

New Rules for Mobility Manufacturers

In the new year, NMEDA’s quality assurance goals are extending to the companies that manufacture the mobility equipment being installed. The new requirements are part of the Manufacturers Quality Assurance Program, also known as MQAP.

“NMEDA has three types of membership,” Hardy noted. “A dealer member, a manufacturer member, and an associate member.” In the past, NMEDA Manufacturer members needed only to submit an application and pay NMEDA dues. But that has changed.

“Unlike the dealers, manufacturer members were not ever bound by any rules or guidelines,” Hardy said. “The concern here is — how can we have any level of assurance that the manufacturers’ product is safe and has been tested to meet federal standards? While not requiring any type of structured and documented quality system does not necessarily mean that the manufacturer is not producing and delivering a quality product to the consumer, it also does not assure the manufacturer is producing a reliable and quality product. Additionally, without any rules for the manufacturer, there is also no acknowledgement that there is a quality system of any kind in place.”

Manufacturer members of NMEDA in the past have promoted the organization in its marketing materials, and other NMEDA members were concerned that poor-quality manufacturing could tarnish NMEDA’s reputation.

“The [manufacturer] member has the ability to promote the NMEDA brand in their literature, Web sites and any other media,” Hardy pointed out. “Some dealers have complained about product quality coming from NMEDA manufacturing members, and feel that NMEDA’s reputation is at stake because of the lack of any rules for manufacturer members. Therefore, in listening to the concerns of our dealer members, and starting in 2016, Manufacturer members will now be required to comply with the newly formed ‘MQAP Rules.’”

Hardy added that MQAP requirements will be implemented via a step-by-step process.

“The MQAP rules are similar to the QAP rules for the dealers in the sense that there are minimum requirements placed on the manufacturer,” he said. “The MQAP will be rolled out in three phases. The first phase is Mobility Vehicle Manufacturers; the second phase will include Seating Systems, Restraint Systems, Mechanical Hand Controls, and Lifts; and the third phase will be all other mobility equipment components.

To retain membership, all manufacturer members will be required to submit test data to the Compliance Review Program, also known as CRP. We know that there is a possibility that we may lose some members as a result of this change in membership policy; however, we also know that being a NMEDA manufacturer member will now mean something more than just submitting a form and dues payment. It will mean the manufacturer is following MQAP Rules and has submitted test data to show compliance with all requested federal safety standards. It’s a big win for dealers and for consumers who rely on the NMEDA and QAP brand for their adaptive mobility product needs.”

New Mobile Installation Rules

The last significant NMEDA program improvement is its new Mobile Installation and Servicing Policy.

“Until now, all QAP dealers have been required to perform mobility equipment installations in their stores,” Hardy said. “There are many reasons for this approach, including knowing there is a controlled environment, that there is adequate insurance and proper tools to perform the job.”

The problem: NMEDA dealers said they were losing business to companies that were willing to do work off site.

“Over the past several years, we have received many complaints from our dealers saying that they are losing business from agencies that require installations for their clients to be done on site at the client’s home property,” Hardy said. “We want not only our dealer members to remain successful, but also for the client who will be receiving the work to be taken care of by a qualified mobility equipment installer. The big question was how can we satisfy the dealer’s interest and perform offsite installations in a way that will retain the integrity of the QAP?”

Hardy said finding a solution was challenging, “but the QAP committee finalized a policy that will allow mobile installations to become a reality, and it will be done while retaining the integrity of the QAP. For a dealer to perform mobile installations, including installations performed at a client’s home, there are several criteria to be met that are all outlined in the Mobile Installation and Servicing policy.”

Those criteria include that the dealer must first have a dedicated mobile installation and servicing vehicle, and that the vehicle must contain at least a minimum set of tools and provisions. The dealer must also become accredited for mobile installations, and this new accreditation type will be audited by a third party.

“Additionally, specific environmental considerations must be satisfied before the dealer can commence with the installation,” Hardy said. “We will not allow installations in inclement weather, for example. The last thing to say about mobile installations is that it only applies to certain types of mobility equipment, all of which are what we would call ‘low tech.’ The new policy prohibits structural modifications and high-tech equipment installations, as these are only to be accomplished under controlled conditions. This policy paves the way for increased volumes of work made available to our dealers through prescribing entities such as the VA.”

The Road Ahead

Despite a full agenda for 2016, Hardy indicated NMEDA is already looking forward.

“Having worked closely with the major vehicle OEMs, we are expecting some significant changes to vehicle platforms in the 2017 model year release,” he noted. “This will mean some equipment installations will need to be redefined, and some conversions will need to be retested for F/CMVSS compliance.”

Hardy added that NMEDA will also forge ahead with ongoing education and advocacy. “We will continue our work with the VA and vocational rehabs on establishing criteria for mobility equipment installers,” he noted, “And we ask all our members to write to their members of Congress to support H.R. 3471, the Veterans Mobility Safety Act bill that is moving through Congress.”

That’s the bill that would give veterans with disabilities a greater voice in the cars and modes of transportation provided by the VA, and provides minimum safety and quality standards for that adaptive equipment. That would include certification of dealerships and individuals who perform vehicle modification services or work with such equipment. Providers of adaptive automotive equipment and services would also need to meet requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

Hardy said the upcoming NMEDA conference would “be our biggest conference ever (see sidebar)” — just like the plans NMEDA has for 2016.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Mobility Management.

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