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Think for a moment about car commercials. When automakers wish to demonstrate the superior handling characteristics of their cars, how do they demonstrate it? Of course, they use twisting turns and winding roads, often showing the car maneuver through a literal slalom course of cones to demonstrate how smoothly and accurately a car handles.

What you may not realize is that the desired handling characteristics in high-end performance cars are strikingly similar to those handling characteristics that are also desirable in power wheelchairs: Responsive, agile, predictable, intuitive handling. That is, an ideally set-up power wheelchair allows you to slalom a row of cones like driving the finest of sports cars.

Indeed, today's power wheelchairs possess amazing handling potential, especially in the turn-on-a-dime 6-wheel technology. However, how does one know how any given power wheelchair should handle, especially if one is new to mobility products? More importantly, how does one know how to program a power wheelchair to handle like a sports car?

The answer is strikingly simple: By setting up a “slalom course.” Truly, the hallmark of power wheelchair handling is shown when one can maneuver it smoothly and predictably through a slalom course of cones. The power wheelchair should be able to maintain a reasonable speed, not dramatically slowing or jerking in turns, and handle predictably, not under- or over-steering. Put simply, a properly-programmed power wheelchair should slalom with the accuracy and smoothness of a ski racer running a course.

In programming one's own power wheelchair, a slalom course is among the best ways to fine-tune predictable handling. Find a flat, smooth, open area, like a driveway, and set up a slalom course. Orange cones aren't lying around in everyone's garage, so other objects can be used, such as bottles of water or plastic cups, to create a slalom course. Space out the five “cones” in a straight line, with approximately 1-1/2 of the wheelchair's length in-between – this gives just enough room to make fluid turns.

At 3mph or so, one should be able to all but effortless slalom the cones, again without the power wheelchair under- or over-steering, maintaining a smooth, flowing cadence through the course.

If the power wheelchair under- or over-steers, loses speed in the turns, or puts up a jerky fight when one tries to slalom the course, then the Turn Speed, Turn Rate, Turn Acceleration, and Turn Deceleration should be decreased or increased, accordingly.

Now, the approximately 3mph is important to note because that's the speed at which a lot of maneuvering occurs – through one's home, in an office, shopping, and such – so that's where effortless “slalom handling” is so important. (At high speeds, in the 6mph to 8mph range, handling is important, too, but use at such speeds is most often straight-line, outdoors, where one isn't making rapid, oscillating turns like in lower-speed environments.)

Sure, setting up a slalom course to program one's power wheelchair may seem a little hokey at first. However, it truly is the most effective way to gauge and fine-tune handling. And, once one has a properly-programmed power wheelchair, and has mastered slaloming the cones, everyday use will be dramatically less taxing, maneuvering among close quarters all but effortlessly.

Published 10/09, Copyright 2009, WheelchairJunkie.com