Mechatronics research yields new insights into wheelchair safety

April 19, 2017

Mechatronic systems engineering professor Carolyn Sparrey’s research focuses on preventing injury by using engineering tools and technologies to study how people get hurt.

In a recent study, Sparrey and her team demonstrated that using seatbelts in wheelchairs could prevent falls resulting from sudden bumps or impacts to the chair, reducing the risks of significant injuries including concussion and skull fractures.

To reach this conclusion, she and her team first simulated the accidents in a lab environment. A wheelchair and its crash test dummy occupant were driven off a curb at varying speeds and angles, using optical tracking to capture the position of the chair.

The resulting data was then applied to thousands of computer simulations of wheelchair tips and falls, allowing the team to closely analyze the effect of seatbelt use, including variables such as angle, speed and curb height. 

They found that using seatbelts eliminated the risk of falling from an upright chair and reduced head impact forces in sideways wheelchair tips. However, Sparrey notes that seatbelt use must also be considered within the ethical and legal definitions of restraints.

Professor Sparrey hopes this research will help identify opportunities to reduce wheelchair tips and falls, and optimize the use and design of power wheelchairs, reducing injury and improving quality of life for wheelchair users.

Related story: Mechatronics student’s research poised to revolutionize wheelchair design