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A mobility scooter has a seat over three, four or now five wheels, a flat area or foot plates for the feet, and handlebars or a delta-style steering arrangement in front to turn one, two or three steerable wheels. The seat may swivel to allow access when the front is blocked by the handlebars. Mobility scooters are usually battery powered. A battery or two is stored on board the scooter and is charged via an onboard or separate battery charger unit from standard electric power. Gasoline-powered scooters may also be available in some countries, though they are rapidly being replaced by electric models.
The tiller, with forward/reverse directions and speed controls, is the steering column centrally located at the front of the scooter. The tiller may contain other features as well, for example a speed limiter, lighting controls (for nighttime use) and turning signals. A battery use indicator is also often included. Forward/reverse direction can be controlled by thumb paddles, finger controls, or a switch. There are two types of mobility scooters: front-wheel drive (FD) or rear-wheel drive (RD). The FD is usually a smaller device and is best used indoors. Rider weight capacity is a minimum of 170 pounds (77 kg) generally upwards to 250 pounds (110 kg) maximum. The RD is used both indoors and outdoors with rider weight capacity of 350 pounds (160 kg). A heavy duty rear-drive can carry up to 500 pounds (230 kg), varying by manufacturer.
The first crude mobility scooter was introduced in 1954 and was billed by Sears as an electric wheel chair, but it was more in common with mobility scooter with its large seat, extra large battery capacity and three wheel design. It was not a commercial success.
Mobility scooters come in various types:
- small, light scooters for travel, which fold or are easily disassembled into smaller parts for transport;
- large, heavy scooters for rough outdoor terrain;
- mid-range scooters, which are intended for both indoor and outdoor use.
- slow and steady, used for shopping in stores and other places.
Usually mid-range mobility scooters have a speed of about 5 to 7 mph (8 to 11 km/h).
Assistive and small sit-down electric mobility scooters provide important advantages to people with mobility problems throughout the world. A scooter is useful for persons without the stamina or arm/shoulder flexibility necessary to use a manual wheelchair. Also, swiveling the seat of an electric scooter is generally easier than moving the foot supports on most conventional wheelchairs. A mobility scooter is very helpful for persons with systemic or whole-body disabling conditions (coronary or lung issues, some forms of arthritis, obesity, etc.) who are still able to stand and walk a few steps, sit upright without torso support, and control the steering tiller.
A major selling point of mobility scooters for many users is that they do not look like a wheelchair, disability still being seen by many as shameful. Mobility scooters are in general more affordable than powered wheelchairs, leading to them being procured as a cheaper alternative.
Recently, manufacturers have been modifying the appearance of scooters to appeal to users. There are now mobility scooters which look like short, thin, small cars, and others that look very much like motorcycles.
While a mobility scooter eliminates much of the manual strength problems of an unpowered wheelchair, its tiller steering mechanism still requires upright posture, shoulder and hand strength, and some upper-body mobility and strength. The arm-rest mounted controller typical of powerchair designs may be more suitable for many users. Scooters also have fewer options for body support, such as head or leg rests. They are rarely designed for ease of patient transfer from seat to bed.
Other drawbacks include longer length, which limits their turning radius and ability to use some lifts or wheelchair-designed access technologies such as kneeling bus lifts. The longer length may also make it difficult to reach door-opener buttons or doorknobs. Some mobility scooter have low ground clearance which can make it difficult to navigate certain obstacles, such as travelling in cities without proper curb cuts. Navigating in restricted spaces, whether in the home or in public spaces and buildings can also be a problem.
While new public buildings are usually designed with accessibility features, at least in North America, the longer length and wider turning radius may make it difficult to use them. This is a greater problem in older buildings which may have had to make compromises in retrofitting accessibility aids. For example, an elevator or lift may be adequate for a wheelchair, but too short for a mobility scooter. Hallways may be too narrow to make a right-angle turn. Or the "privacy" wall in most washrooms may restrict the entry so that the scooter cannot maneuver around it. The weight minimum and limitations may be cause for concern as well with the minimum weight requirement being 170 lbs and the maximum being between 250-400 pounds depending on the make. These limitations may prevent some disabled individuals from using scooters. In addition, scooter limitations may vary depending on model and manufacturer. A limitation of one make/model does not necessarily carry over to all. Individual needs may affect the suitability of a particular model. Four-wheel scooters have a larger turning radius in general, than a three wheel scooter. In particular, a purchaser should compare length, width, turning radius and ground clearance to ensure the scooter will fit with most commonly encountered obstacles in the user's environment.
Currently in the United States, Medicare will not approve a power wheelchair for persons who do not need to use the chair "inside their own home", even if their medical needs restrict the use of a mobility scooter. For example, a person with severe arthritis of both shoulders and hands may not be the best candidate for a scooter, but because they can walk a few steps in their own home, such persons are not seen as approved candidates for a power wheelchair either. Various disability rights groups are campaigning for Medicare to change this policy. For those who do qualify for Medicare, they can reimburse up to 80% of the Medicare allowable value of the scooter.
Such restrictions are also applied in at least some Canadian provinces. For example, to be eligible for partial funding by the Ontario Assistive Devices Program, the user must require the scooter for use in their own home.
Similar restrictions on NHS powerchair provision exist in the UK, with manual wheelchairs prescribed for users with any ability to walk. This has led to many users who might be better served by a powerchair privately procuring a mobility scooter as a cheaper substitute.
In the UK mobility scooters are widely available with government subsidy under the Motability scheme. They are legally classified by the Use of Invalid Carriages on Highways Regulations 1988 as either Class II or Class III Invalid Carriages for legal purposes. A Class II scooter must be limited to 4 mph (6.4 km/h) for use on a footway only, while a Class III scooter must be limited to 8 mph (13 km/h) for road/highway use and have an additional 4 mph limiter for footway use. As of March 2010[update] a government consultation is under way to determine how the law should adapt to increasing scooter use, whether higher road speeds should be allowed and on a replacement for the archaic term "invalid carriage". Due to concerns over safety issues and problems with bringing prosecutions against irresponsible users under existing laws, the consultation will also consider whether to make third party insurance mandatory, consider the introduction of compulsory training for users and discuss how to bring scooter users under wider road traffic legislations.
A class 2 invalid carriage does not require registration. Class 3 invalid carriages may not be driven by a person under 14 years; they need to be registered with the DVLA and are subject to vehicle excise duty ("car tax"), though the rate is zero.
Disability Essex told the Committee about four deaths resulting from mobility scooter accidents in one year in Essex alone, but there is little evidence to suggest that fatalities on this scale are replicated nationwide.
In Canada, mobility scooter users are classified as pedestrians and thus may legally use sidewalks for travel. This classification is based on wheel diameter. However, a mobility scooter weighs approximately 150 to 180 pounds (70 to 80 kg) without the driver and can cause serious injury or death. Users must use care while driving around pedestrians on sidewalks. There is some growing concern, and even hostility, about the use of mobility scooters in crowded urban areas.
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