Wheelchair driving gets a fresh spin

CZECH REPUBLIC • When Mr Ladislav Brazdil bought an old collective farm with a partner after the Czech revolution, what he really wanted was to engineer and market his own product. His dream became reality when a design engineer asked him about an idea he had in mind: an urban micro-car designed specifically for disabled drivers.

"This was it," said Mr Brazdil. "It was something unique that we, as an engineering business, could produce in part, and, at the same time, it supported our own development as a manufacturing business."

He and his two sons now have their own business manufacturing such cars: Elbee Mobility, in the small town of Lostice in the Olomouc district of North Moravia, the Czech Republic. The Elbee vehicle opens from the front, and the driver enters straight into it on a wheelchair.

The front-end opening of the car is an innovation that enables independence for wheelchair users who drive. To get in, they back up a ramp into the vehicle, secure the wheelchair, and drive.

Ordinary vehicles that have been adapted for wheelchair use still present the problem of needing to stow the wheelchair. If users do not have the strength to do this themselves, they would need help.

Another advantage of this compact car is that it can be parked on a street facing the pavement, so drivers can simply ride out and be safely among pedestrians.

But although its current price of almost US$25,000 (S$34,600) can be cut by two-thirds through various subsidies and reliefs, it is still cheaper for wheelchair users to modify a normal car. Despite this, dozens of Elbee cars are now on the roads of Europe.

It marks a major breakthrough in travel for disabled people.

Mr Ladislav Brazdil Jr said: "We've had reactions from people saying that thanks to the Elbee, they're now learning to drive and they are regaining strength and ability. In our small way, we're restoring their lives."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline 'Wheelchair driving gets a fresh spin'. Print Edition | Subscribe