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How fast does one need to travel in a powerchair - that's one of the most common considerations of end users in selecting a new powerchair.  Specifically, how much does a particular maximum speed truly benefit a user, and what is the functional, perceivable difference between 5mph, 6.5mph, 8.5mph, and faster powerchairs in real world use?

The answer is based on an individual's lifestyle, with some universal principals that apply, helping put powerchair speed into real-world perspective when selecting a speed package.

5mph
Starting at the lower-end of powerchair speeds, a 5mph top speed is the overall baseline for rehab products.  For users who spend a great deal of time indoors, and use a van for transportation, a maximum speed of 5mph is often plenty.  After all, one rarely needs to travel faster than 5mph indoors or on short trips from a parking space to a front door.  In this use, then, 5mph is entirely functional and practical.

6.5mph
For users who are more active outdoors, a 6.5mph top speed comes into play, where the slightly higher speed can make a difference when traveling by powerchair for a few blocks to catch public transportation, or for students going from class to class on college campuses.  6.5mph seems fast to many users, and is comparable to a jogging pace - enough speed for users needing to get from point to point quickly.

8.5mph
8.5mph powerchairs touch upon the upper echelon of production powerchairs, traveling 70% faster than baseline rehab powerchairs, getting into the range of an average person's paced running speed.  For extremely active outdoor users covering long distances, 8.5mph saves a lot of time on pedestrian trips and traveling around town on errands.  The 8.5mph top speed also allows one to keep up with children and others on bikes for increased outdoor participation.  

10mph and Faster
10mph and faster powerchairs enter a genre where speed-related dynamics may come into affect, moving some powerchairs closer to needing a bike path as much as a sidewalk - that is, the powerchair truly needs open space to run at full speed.  It's in this area of ultra-high-speed powerchairs where user discretion becomes necessary, with reaction times and braking distances requiring attention - objects are encountered quicker, the powerchair takes longer to stop, and roll-over obstacles can be intensified.  Certainly, ultra-high-speed powerchairs can prove entirely safe and functional, but it is important to note that user discretion, as with any advanced-performance product, should be used.  Nevertheless, if one is commuting over very long distances on smooth, open sidewalks and bike paths, ultra-high-speed powerchairs can prove exceptionally liberating tools toward independent travel.

One aspect of speed that's an issue for many powerchair users is funding, where many insurers won't pay for an upcharged "high-speed" package, covering only the standard speed available on the base.  However, protocols like Medicare's Advance Beneficiary Notice (ABN), allow the beneficiary to pay the difference out-of-pocket for the higher speed package, where for as little as $295, users can move up an additional 2mph on certain models.

When users ask me which speed class of powerchairs they should consider - 5mph, 6.5mph, 8.5mph, or faster - I ask them the same questions that each of us should ask ourselves when considering speed toward a new powerchair:  How fast do I truly need to travel in my powerchair based on my lifestyle?

If you're mostly indoors, with a van for transportation, 5mph likely is entirely suitable.  If you're a bit active outdoors, covering extended distances at times, 6.5mph is a great choice.  If you're very active outdoors, traveling long distances and running errands around town, 8.5mph may be a meaningful speed.  And, if you need the fastest of the fast, traversing extended bike paths and such, with discretion in your use, a 10mph or faster powerchair may be the right speed for you.

Speed, then, doesn't represent the best of the best - it's not a given that a faster powerchair is intrinsically better than a slower powerchair.  Rather, speed represents a subjective application, where smart users understand that speed isn't just in the eye of the beholder, but in the nature of one's lifestyle.

Published 9/06, Copyright 2006, WheelchairJunkie.com