Kymberly Martin

Battle lines drawn as Nationals push for changes to MMDs

The National Party annual conference has passed a motion calling for tougher regulations on MMDs. It wants the Federal Government to introduce uniform Australian design rules and standards for mobility scooters, also known as motorised wheelchairs that would limit the weight of these scooters to less than 150kg, including batteries and accessories, and restrict them to a maximum speed of 6km/h. The proposed changes follow a move by National Party senator John Williams whose wife was injured in a collision with a mobility scooter last year.

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ATSA executive office, David Sinclair, has described Senator Williams’ successful motion as a cause of concern for Australian seniors and people with disability that will disadvantage some of its most vulnerable citizens. Sinclair told F2L the Nationals should have sought expert advice from mobility specialists and those living with the experience of disability before calling for such wide-reaching reforms.

People in rural and regional areas are likely to be most affected by reducing speeds and limiting the availability of larger MMDs with the introduction of weight restrictions.  “Because these larger devices are far more appropriate for rougher terrain and the distances covered, it is puzzling that the Nationals are leading a campaign against their core constituents,” Sinclair said. The current legal top speed of 10km/h is equivalent to jogging and is already limiting to individuals who rely on these devices to commute.  To reduce the speed further will place vulnerable users at risk as it will take longer for them to travel to their destination, particularly during hot weather.”

With 100% of mobility scooters and 90% of electric wheelchairs sold in Australia imported, these devices already meet international standards for Europe, the US and Asia.  Australia represents just 2% of the world MMD market and is thought that manufacturers will not build specific models for such a small demand resulting in less choice and higher prices.

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“The Nationals’ policy will also have a profound impact on motorised wheelchair users as they fall under the same regulations as mobility scooters.  Their policy will mean Australia will have the most draconian regulatory environment in the world for such devices,” Sinclair said.

Setting a maximum weight limit of 150kg also means heavier people and those with complex needs (i.e. quadriplegics, with cerebral palsy, etc) may not be able to get a legally compliant device that meets their needs, in effect, keeping them in their homes.  The proposed changes will also affect people who need to carry respiratory devices and precludes specialised modifications due to the added weight to their MMD. “This is contrary to the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities to which Australia is a signatory.”

Sinclair said ATSA believes in fairness and equality for people with disabilities, rather than over-regulation leading to misalignment with internationally accepted standards and considers a public awareness campaign to be a far more productive and effective proposition. “The focus should be on education, including training of scooter users and encouraging all pedestrians to look where they are going. However, the Nationals seem determined to unfairly penalise the majority of motorised mobility users who do the right thing.  The proposed changed ignores the current well-established structures that already exist in Australia for the management of MMDs. These devices are already highly regulated by a number of authorities including State and Territory Governments, Customs and Border Protection, Therapeutic Goods Administration, Austroads and Standards Australia,” he said.

A spokesman for the NSW Minister for Transport in a statement to F2L said:   “Mobility scooters are a great way for less mobile people like the elderly to regain their independence and get to everyday places such as parks or local shops. The same road rules that apply to pedestrians also apply to mobility scooters.

“Under the NSW road rules mobility scooters must not travel faster than 10km/h and riders don’t need a licence to operate one. However, road safety experts say there are safety issues with lowering the speed limit of mobility scooters. Reducing the speed to 6 km/h lowers the ability of the rider to get out of harm’s way when crossing the road. There are also sections of roads in regional areas or near road works where there may be no footpaths. Lowering the speed limits of mobility scooters exposes riders for longer in those vulnerable situations where they are forced to share the road with vehicles,” he said. The Australian Road Rules Maintenance Advisory Group advises the government on amendments to road rules to ensure national consistency where possible.

Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA) policy officer Tony Jones believes the motion will have little bearing at this stage as it only relates to National Party policy.  He described the response to the incident with Senator Williams’ wife as a “kneejerk reaction”, adding that in reality this accident could have been caused by any number of things from bicycles to joggers. “People have accidents sometimes by not looking first at what might be in their path,” he told F2L. “Most people with spinal cord injuries or a severe physical disability who cannot transfer themselves use a power wheelchair not a scooter,” he said. Scooters generally are used by elderly people with some mobility wanting to get out and about in the community, usually to shop.

Also he said any changes to the speed limit on scooters also posed the question as to how any how these would be enforced, “I think it would be difficult as there are so many regulations and standards that come into play here.”  Further, he said the as most of the scooters and motorised wheelchairs are imported  and if there were mandatory changes machine  technology would need to be altered in order for it to be used in Australia. “I can understand the Senator being upset but I don’t think he has thought through the issues.

“Generally speaking, power wheelchairs are not as large or have the same speed. However you will find that those using power (motorised) wheelchairs, mostly use them all the time as opposed to, as an example, an elderly person using a scooter for mobility from time to time. Neither device is allowed to exceed 10 km/h. People with disability often have to anticipate other people’s movements when out and about. As with many disability related issues there is always complexity.”

Permobil senior advisor, Malcolm Turnbull, said the MMD  involved in the unfortunate accident is used predominantly as a transportation mode by those who find it difficult or impossible to walk, drive or use public transport and is often the only mode of mobility. “The top speed of these devices is measured and programmed on a level path and when going up hills the top speed drops. To limit the speed even further will make it extremely slow to get anywhere. The 6km/h limit would also create potential safety issues for MMD users, for example when crossing roads,” Turnbull told F2L, adding that navigating curbs and ramps can be tricky which reduces the time to cross the road. “The proposed 6km/h top speed could cause problems for many MMD users. It would be more reasonable to have a system that educates users of the potential dangers, and use lower speeds in busier areas. Most, if not all, MMDs have a simple switch which limits the top speed to 6km/h.

“By lowering the top speed we would not only take away a good degree of independence for a large number of MMD users but create costs at manufacturing, distribution and retail levels. Australia would also be out of step with other countries, including Europe, the UK and the US as existing MMDs will have to be reprogrammed.  As the motion also calls for a weight restriction of 150kg it means a significant number of people t will have to compromise. One of the heaviest components of MMDs are the batteries, so less powerful batteries would need to be used which results in less range at a slower pace and not be able to travel as far.

“It is a disappointing reaction and I hope for the sake of those who rely on MMDs for their independence and accessibility to communities, along with wellbeing and feelings of inclusiveness that the Senate will reject the proposal,” he said.  “In Australia electric powered devices such as bicycles, electric skateboards, electric side kick scooters, etc, used by able bodied people, have a top speed limit of 25km/h but are restricted in busy areas. I think this is in line with what would be a fair and reasonable course of action with MMDs.”

Scooters Australia managing director, Peter Fraser, also questioned the Senator’s remarks. According to Fraser, a new Draft Standard being developed will limit all mobility scooters and electric wheelchairs to 10km/h. “We are an importer of mobility scooters and any electric wheelchairs or scooters capable of more than 10km/h is banned from leaving the wharf. In 2011 more people died from chair falls in NSW than were killed in a mobility scooter accident.”

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