Giving Mobility When Legs Can't

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NEWARK, DEL. -- When automakers conceive vehicles for the youth market, they aim to appeal to drivers 18 to 24 years old. Cole Galloway skews much, much younger: he designs cars for the 18- to 24-month bracket.

This is because Dr. Galloway, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Delaware campus here, creates mobility devices for a largely neglected group: crawlers, toddlers and preschoolers who are not able to walk.

Usually, small children who cannot walk because of a physical condition are simply picked up or wheeled in strollers. But motorized chairs, which could give them some independence, are typically not available to them until they reach school age. This lack of mobility is a serious concern because exploring one's surroundings at a young age is crucial to developing social interaction and making cognitive progress.

Dr. Galloway set out to provide the very young with a means to motor around on their own.

He began with high-tech robotic chairs, but soon realized that such devices were too expensive and produced in low volume for the demand. After some tinkering, he hit upon a simple, cheap and effective substitute: mass-market battery-power cars available at toy stores -- a Barbie Jeep or Thomas the Tank Engine, for example -- that could be individually adapted to the child's needs.

Taking cues from the driver-protection measures in racecars, these toy cars are outfitted with well-padded safety cages of tubing that surrounds the youngsters, seat-belt harnesses and custom-fitted driver controls.

Dr. Galloway's lab, which looks like Santa's workshop gone gear head, is filled with the detritus of a typical repair shop: rows of cars waiting to be serviced and piles of parts -- PVC tubing, foam swimming-pool flotation "noodles," nuts, bolts and the like.

Again borrowing from auto racing, Dr. Galloway has indoor and outdoor test tracks to monitor the progress of vehicle development with his tiny drivers. He has even set up traveling seminars to teach the families of physically impaired children how to convert these motorized toys themselves, setting previously immobile babies free to wreak typical toddler havoc.

The success of this program, called GoBabyGo, inspired Dr. Galloway and his team to design a purpose-built prototype. Called UDare2B, or simply Big Blue, after the university's Fighting Blue Hen mascot, the racy little car has so much character it might make other children envious.

The Big Blue concept may look like just another toy, but beneath its stylish exterior lies a serious mission. Its ovoid shell is designed to act as a protective surround -- basically a racecar type integrated roll cage -- and physical support for a child who has not developed sufficient muscle control for driving. It will have satellite tracking and computerized monitoring to log data that will help researchers learn how children are using the car. Adaptive steering systems will let the controls be adjusted to suit the physical abilities of the driver.

A tight turning radius -- essentially, Big Blue is designed to turn in its own length -- will make it highly maneuverable, and together with its compact size and light weight, will make it appropriate for indoor as well as outdoor use.

As futuristic as Big Blue may appear, the project could produce a working model in as little as 12 months, depending on the success of pending applications for financing from federal agencies.

There is also commercial interest from makers of adult mobility scooters, Dr. Galloway said. "The opportunity to couple research funding with a commercial partner ensures that the resulting vehicle will roll out as both a clinically effective and real-world ready mobility option for children and their families."

What's the real payoff? Children with physical limitations who rely on others to get around would experience the exhilaration of striking off on their own, experiencing space, objects and other children on their own terms.

As Dr. Galloway puts it, "The drive for exploration through movement and mobility is a deep part of being fully human.

"The same joy and excitement experienced by every dancer or musician, astronaut or athlete can be seen in newly mobile children," he said.

Any car enthusiast can relate to the great joys and limitless possibilities of the open road. The appeal may start earlier than we realize, Dr. Galloway says.

"Babies dig acceleration!" he said. Perhaps it's genetic.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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