Size-Friendly Car: Features to Look For

coupleincar120x120Shopping Tips for Size-Friendly Cars

Editor’s Note: The information provided in this article was compiled by Stef Jones in her online FAQ about Physical Resources for Big Folk in answer to the question “What models of cars work best for big folks?”

The consensus on cars is: there is no consensus on cars. Everyone is shaped slightly differently, and what one large person loves, another large person hates. That said, here are some guidelines on buying cars, followed by a list of makes and models that some big folks have found work (or don’t work) for them.

Test drive everything you can lay your hands on. Avoid preconceptions — check out all the cars in your price range. Once you find a car you think you like, try to rent it for a week or so. You learn much more about a car when you spend some time with it.

When you check out a car, here are some things to think about:

Seating

If the fit is almost there, an auto upholstery shop or body shop or shop specializing in modifications for special needs (such as Mobility Systems in Berkeley, California) can move or lower a car seat, add or take away the seat’s padding, install pedal extenders or a small steering wheel and so on. Also, all U.S. car companies will help pay for adaptations in new cars for the physically handicapped.

  • Can you extend your legs fully? If you have to fold up your legs too much, you’ll get a cramp over long distances.
  • Is there enough room for your hips? Do your hips or thighs touch anything sharp or hard on the sides of the seats or on the doors? Some bucket seats are too small for big folks to sit in comfortably.
  • Does it feel claustrophobic with two people in the front seats? Manual cars may have more room between the front seats, to allow space for the gear shift to move — but a large person’s thighs may interfere with the gear shift.
  • Is there room for your thighs and stomach the steering wheel? A tilt steering wheel may help.
  • Does the the front seat support your back sufficiently? If the car has adjustable lumbar support, does it fit you?

Seatbelts

Many car companies offer seatbelt extenders and some will customize seatbelts for free. Unfortunately, car seatbelts vary a lot, even within models — there is no universal extender. The only way to get the correct extender for your car is to go to the parts department of your dealership. Honda owners may be able to sweet-talk a Nissan parts manager into trying to figure out which is the corresponding part (but people have run into trouble with this–a Nissan Vehicle Identification Number may be required to order an extender).

Nissan and Honda buy their belts from the same belt makers, but Honda does not offer seatbelt extenders. (If you do this be very sure you are not voiding your insurance coverage, your warranty, or you right to sue if the belt breaks in an accident. You have to get everyone’s permission in writing, and this procedure can cost you a few hundred dollars.)

Here are some web sites which may help anyone trying to get seat belt extenders:

  • Elizabeth Fisher petitioned the U.S. government to change the current regulations regarding seatbelt extenders. (The current regulations require seatbelts to fit people up to only 215 pounds!)
  • Current United States seatbelt regulation

If you haven’t bought the car yet, get it “in writing” (very important) that they will provide you with extenders, or replace the belts for long-enough ones at no charge to you.

Companies reported to be good about seatbelt modifications include:

  • Chevrolet (GM) – They supply seatbelt extenders at no charge.
  • Chrysler – They supply seatbelt extenders at no charge.
  • Dodge – They offer seatbelt extenders at no extra charge.
  • Ford and Mercury – They supply free extenders upon request (However, you may need to be persistent. One person reported that a Ford dealership said seatbelt extenders are no longer available.)
  • Mazda – They can be ordered for a customer free of charge.
  • Mitsubishi – They mail seatbelt extenders at no charge to a customer.
  • Saturn – They stock seatbelt extenders; however, you may have to pay $30 or so for them.
  • Toyota – They measure you and custom-make extenders for free, but this may take a while; they’ll also give them to you without measuring if you want, but they claim measuring makes the belts safer. NOTE: One person said that a dealer told her extenders were not available for one of Toyota’s two-door cars.
  • Volkswagen – They offer seat belt extenders for selected models.
  • Volvo – They provide metal extenders.

Companies reported to be bad about seatbelt modifications include:

  • Honda – They do not make seatbelt extenders and may make you buy a whole new seatbelt.
  • Subaru – Customers claim they are unhelpful about seat belt extensions and pedal extensions.
  • Hyundai – They are reported not to provide seat belt extenders.

Note that dealers may be willing to bargain. One person told her local dealer that she’d buy a Honda from them if they could put longer seatbelts in the back. They installed new seatbelts at a local customizing shop for no extra cost.

Other solutions for too-short seatbelts:

  • Buy oversized van seatbelts at an auto parts store.
  • Have an auto customizer or auto upholsterer modify or replace the seatbelts.
  • If you know how to bar tack and feel comfortable messing around with safety equipment, you can modify seatbelts yourself. You can buy the 2″ flat webbing used for seatbelts at climbing stores for about $1 a foot.
  • J.C. Whitney offers inexpensive (under $20) seatbelt extenders. You have to bolt them onto the wall or floor of the auto compartment. So, you need to have seatbelts that attach to the car with a bolt (as opposed to those spring-recoil or automatic slider-thingies a lot of new small cars have).
  • Amazon stocks a variety of seatbelt extenders.
  • If the seatbelt fits with the seat back, consider pedal extenders. They cost about $60-$70 per pedal, are standard (fit most vehicles), and you can install them yourself. They also allow you to sit farther back from the wheel, which is recommended when driving cars with air bags.

Other seatbelt considerations:

  • Do you have to fight to pull the belt out far enough? Automatic seat belts that attach to the doors may be difficult to maneuver around, but they tend to be on the long side.
  • Does the seatbelt rub against your neck or choke you? Some cars have adjustable seatbelts.

Other solutions for rubbing or choking seatbelts:

  • Fasten the belt, pull it out an inch more, and attach a safety pin or bulldog clip where the belt retracts.
  • Tuck the seatbelt underneath a fanny pack worn around your waist.
  • Buy a Velcro pocket that you can thread the seatbelt through so it sits lower on your chest. It’s available at auto parts stores. It’s marketed for children, but can be used by adults too.

Airbags

Airbags may be dangerous for people who sit within 10-12 inches of the steering wheel (measured from the center of the wheel to the center of the chest) or the passenger side dashboard. This includes people under 5’3″ and many large people. If a person sits that close, the airbag may cause serious damage because it opens explosively.

The U.S. federal government has issued guidelines for airbag on-off switches to be fitted to some vehicles. To obtain the switch, get a safety brochure and form from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a dealership, repair shop, state motor vehicle office, or other location. The form requests information on the vehicle and the reason for fitting the switch. It also contains a section where the consumer acknowledges the risk of turning off the air bag. The NHTSA will then send an authorization letter so you can have your air bag switch installed.

Also consider pedal extenders, which may allow you to sit farther back from the steering wheel. Note that even without airbags, people who sit close to the steering wheel may be at greater risk for injury from the steering wheel itself.

Reach, Entry and Exit

  • Can you reach the steering wheel easily? A tilt steering wheel may help. You can raise the steering wheel to get in and out, then pull it down for driving.
  • Can you reach the radio, lights, mirrors, glove box, door and window controls? Can you reach the seat adjustment controls while you’re seated?
  • Is the car door low, so it’s easy to bump your head when you get in or out carelessly?
  • Can you get out of the car in a narrow parking space? Four-door cars work better in this situation.
  • Can you and your passengers get in and out of the back seat easily? Four-door cars are easier to get in and out of.
  • How far does the car sink when you get into it? If you use a driveway with a high incline, a lot of sinkage may cause the car to scrape the ground.

Copyright by Stef Jones (stef@bayarea.net)