Hit the Road Safely

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News September 2018

From flat tires to lift malfunctions, roadside emergencies don’t have to ruin your road trip if you plan ahead.

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The van’s filled with gas, and the route is mapped out on the GPS. Bags are packed with some snacks, drinks and entertainment. You’re ready for a road trip. But what happens if the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere? September is National Preparedness Month, so there’s no better time to consider some precautions that should be taken to prepare for emergencies on the road. 

For people with mobility impairments or other disabilities, traveling by automobile can have many benefits when compared with other modes of transportation, especially airline travel. In addition to avoiding baggage hassles and lost or damaged mobility devices, road trips can often be more cost-effective and can afford drivers the freedom to stop and rest, thus reducing fatigue. But there are some inherent dangers and obstacles to consider as well. If you’re thinking about hitting the road this fall, a little planning can go a long way if you find yourself stuck on the side of the road.

Make A Travel Plan

About four years ago, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Past National President Joseph Fox Sr., began driving nearly everywhere when he travels for work or pleasure, primarily because of his frustration with airline travel. 

“It got old and it really got old because they broke my chairs and it was just common they’d leave me in an aisle chair, they’d leave me sitting on the plane, and they’ve even taken me all the way from the jetway to baggage claim just to get my chair, when they should bring the chair up to the plane,” he says. “I like to drive, so my wife [Hilda] and I now just drive everywhere.”

Fox, who sustained a T8/9 spinal-cord injury in May 1968 while serving in Vietnam during an operation in the province of Qung Tr outside of Đông Hà, now hits the road in his BraunAbility Chrysler Town & Country modified van with a side ramp. In his 30 years with PVA, the California resident says he’s driven just about everywhere except Alaska and Puerto Rico. On a few occasions, he’s had to call AAA to help him fix a flat tire and his ramp has malfunctioned from time to time, but he’s encountered relatively few issues while on the road. Having some type of auto club membership is worth the money, he says, because they can also help map out trips, stops, hotels and reroute you in case of inclement weather.

“You tell them you’re disabled in a wheelchair and you’re stranded on the side of the highway, they don’t want to be known for leaving somebody out there on the highway for two hours and a truck comes along or a car and totals them out,” Fox says. “That wouldn’t look good.” 

In addition to his AAA membership, his van warranty allows him to take it to any Chrysler dealership to have it fixed. But for Fox, it all comes down to preparation and careful planning. He breaks long trips down into sections so he doesn’t get tired, and he tries to use major highways. Prior to departure, Fox creates a travel sheet and leaves it with a neighbor, relative or friend with a list of hotel phone numbers and towns where he’s going to stop. If something happens or he doesn’t check in within a certain timeframe, someone will know how to track him and call the nearest highway patrol.

“It’s always good to let somebody know where you’re headed in your pre-plan and let them know whereabouts you might be or the town you’re gonna be in and make sure they might be available,” Fox says.

Before a trip, he has regular maintenance done on his van, including an oil change, belts inspected, a new air filter installed, tire pressure and fluid levels checked, and he makes sure the car is in good working shape overall. If the vehicle has a mechanical lift or ramp, Fox says knowing how to reset it is good idea, as well.

“Wherever you’re at, whatever town, you go on [your phone] and search for accessible van lifts or accessible companies that work on lifts, or I call Braun where I bought the car and talk to a technician, and he can usually tell me, ‘Well, go in the back, put the seat down, and then reach underneath and hit the auxiliary button to reset it,’ which I normally do,” he says.

He tries to stop at certain rest areas and truck stops that are well-lit and where he knows there’s a lot of traffic. If he has a problem with his van, he says there will most likely be a truck driver who can help him. Fox also carries extra fuses, jumper cables and snow chains, and he always makes sure to keep his cellphone charged.

Find The Right Resources

While having a travel plan in place is a great first step, there are always events that could change those plans. In those cases, having the right resources available can help get you safely back on the road. Patricia Kosta is the owner and founder of the ADA Auto Club (, which has been providing nationwide emergency roadside assistance and mobility support services to wheelchair users and their families since 2009.

“We’re basically a AAA on steroids in that we not only provide basic roadside assistance services like towing, tire change, unlock and gas delivery, but also we provide paratransit lift service for those times when our members’ vehicles must be towed away for repairs,” Kosta says. “We also provide mechanical roadside repair for a vehicle in order to prevent a member from being separated from their accessible vehicle because in our world, we know that’s never a good thing.”

The auto club can arrange other concierge services such as trip routing, advice on accessible destinations and hotels, urgent evacuation assistance, grocery delivery, mobile medical assistance and door-to-door transportation. Costs for concierge services are separate from the auto club membership fee (starting at $185 for a year). The service call coverage limit is $125 but beyond that, the auto club searches its provider network to find out who’s the best and can respond to the customer in the shortest amount of time. In addition, if a member experiences an issue with his or her manual or power wheelchair or scooter, the auto club will locate someone to service the device. Kosta says some of the most frequent calls they get are for lift, automatic door or ramp malfunctions, jumpstarts and tire changes.

Like Fox, Kosta says the most important thing for wheelchair users to do before a road trip, or at least every six months, is to make sure their accessible vehicle and their lift or ramp are properly inspected and serviced. In addition, she says a basic first aid kit is always a wise item to carry, along with plenty of water, nutritious snacks, energy bars and blankets. 

“With paratransit service in a roadside emergency situation, it can often take up to 90 minutes, and that can be a very long time for certain people, and it’s best just to be prepared,” she says.

Plan on having extra catheters, hoses for oxygen, additional medication or other medical devices as needed for your injury or condition in case the car can’t be repaired for a day or two and a hotel stay is required, she says. If a tire blows or the engine quits, Kosta says people should be thoughtful about how and where they pull over and should call for roadside assistance immediately.

“If you’re on a freeway, you’re gonna want to stay in that vehicle, and that may be very dangerous, but it’s more dangerous to get out of the vehicle,” she says. “A lot of the lifts on these accessible vehicles will not deploy if the ground isn’t level out there.”

Kosta says wheelchair users without an auto club membership should call 911 or the police non-emergency number to let officers know their car is on the side of a freeway. Police can respond quickly and block or slow the traffic to allow the wheelchair user to exit the vehicle safely. It’s also important to know your approximate location, the closest freeway exit, town or mile marker to tell the dispatcher in order to avoid delays in getting help. Kosta says when calling for emergency roadside assistance, it’s important to communicate up front to the call receiver that the driver is a wheelchair user. She says wait times could be exponentially higher if this information isn’t known immediately.

While it’s not only dangerous but also illegal in most states to tow a vehicle with a passenger inside, occasionally towing companies will risk it if the only other choice is leaving the person stranded on the side of the road. 

“[Don’t] be surprised if a tow company refuses service because there’s a passenger in the vehicle,” Kosta says. “Now, some guys out there, the towing companies are really great, and a lot of them will take that risk, but if something were to happen, and being in a vehicle that’s on a dolly or a flatbed, it’s just not good. It’s not safe any way you cut it.”

Kindness Of Strangers

Barbara Twardowski, a freelance writer who has a neuromuscular condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, was once in that precarious position locked inside her accessible van while it was being towed when she and her husband, Jim, had engine trouble.

“The big problem is what do I do if the car breaks down, because how do I get to somewhere else?” Barbara says. “I can’t hop in the tow truck with the guy even when I’m in my power chair, so that’s kind of nerve-racking when you have trouble.”

The Twardowskis take road trips about 10 to 12 times a year, with Jim doing all the driving. Barbara says to use your own best judgement on a case-by-case basis to determine whether it’s safe to exit the vehicle if a breakdown occurs. 

“That’s tricky depending on where your ramp is to get out, and, like, if you’re going to roll off into some grass, and you know it’s usually kind of steep when you get down away from the car,” she says.

Barbara says financially it’s a good idea to join a couple of hotels’ rewards programs in the event you get stuck somewhere while your vehicle’s in the shop. When all else fails, both Fox and Barbara  say they can rely on the kindness of strangers, whether it’s a busy mechanic who manages to squeeze in a van repair or someone who has a phone to call for help.

“I’ll guarantee you, if you’re that long on the highway, someone will probably notice your van and they’ll stop to assist you,” Fox says. “I’ve had truck drivers that I had a flat tire on my car about 10 miles from my house on I-15, and I pulled over and I got out to look at it and I went up to use the phones on the side of the highway, emergency phone. And this truck driver that was headed to Oklahoma passed me, seen I was a veteran in a wheelchair, and he went down the next off-ramp, got off, turned around and pulled up behind my van.” 

Barbara acknowledges a few times she and Jim have gotten out of trouble with a little bit of luck.

“We broke down on the road and we had another family in an accessible van stop and said, ‘Can we give you a ride up to wherever it is?’ Because they got it, you know, and they were just like, ‘We couldn’t just drive by and not pull over to see if you needed help,’” she says. “I have found that people are really nice if you come in and say, ‘I am so sorry, but we are traveling, we’re on vacation or whatever, and this is a wheelchair-accessible van and my wife is really stuck, my husband will tell them.” 

For more information on the ADA Auto Club, call 800-720-3132. PVA members can receive a club membership discount with the promo code “pvamobility.”


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