Road to Danger

By Mark E. Smith

I’ve been reading posts on the WheelchairJunkie message board by users asserting their rights to use their wheelchairs along the shoulders of roadways, as “pedestrians” – and it reads to me as a troubling argument, where based on pedestrian accident statistics and remaining social barriers of inaccessible sidewalks and transit systems, we should advocate getting wheelchair users off of roads, not on them.

Technically, throughout the U.S., a wheelchair user is a pedestrian, able to travel where pedestrians travel. For some, this includes traveling down the shoulders of roadways when sidewalks aren’t available. Of course, as experienced by some posters on the message board, ignorance remains toward disability and wheelchair use, where some with disabilities have expressed being stopped by the police for using their wheelchairs “in the street,” provoking the wish of some to seek legal protection so that they can continue using their wheelchairs along roadways when needed.

What’s occurred to me in reading the discussions is that while many wheelchair users are quick to tout their rights as pedestrians on roadways, none mention personal safety and responsibility, where just because one can or needs to use a wheelchair along roadways doesn’t mean that the activity is prudent.

The fact is, automobiles occupy the road, and the minute that a pedestrian ventures into the proximity of vehicular traffic, extreme awareness and caution must be taken. While a pedestrian may have every right of way, it still doesn’t discount the fact that pedestrians who use wheelchairs are regularly struck and killed by automobiles in this country, frequently reported in news stories.

According to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, whenever pedestrians interact with roadways, there’s potential danger, to the toll of 1 pedestrian death every 108 minutes in the U.S. Additionally, the facts show that placing oneself outside of normal pedestrian patterns – such as outside of crosswalks – skyrockets the risk of an accident, with 75% of pedestrian-vehicle accidents occurring at non-intersections.

Interestingly, I’ve read wheelchair users stating that they travel on the shoulders of roadways even when there are accessible sidewalks because it’s safer, that the bumps and slopes of sidewalks can be dangerous. Statistically, nothing is farther from the truth. In 2001, while 4,461 pedestrians were killed on roadways, none were killed on sidewalks by roadway vehicles according to statistics. Sure, some who use wheelchairs say that a rough sidewalk could cause a wheelchair to tip, resulting in injury; however, such odds are so small that they’re a non-statistic, especially for a wheelchair-sidewalk related death. Put simply, pedestrians using wheelchairs on roadways are unquestionably at risk, but not so on sidewalks – that is, the safest place for a pedestrian, wheelchair or not, is on a sidewalk.  (And, it’s illegal in most states for a pedestrian to travel along a roadway when a sidewalk is available.)

Similarly to using sidewalks, pedestrians dramatically increase safety by simply obeying intersection laws, crossing in crosswalks, namely when the light gives the pedestrian the right of way (again, 75% of all pedestrian fatalities occur at non-intersections, so crossing at controlled intersections dramatically increases safety). And, traveling during daylight hours also reduces the risk of pedestrian accidents, where 66% of pedestrian fatalities occur at night, between 6 pm and 6 am.

Still, some pedestrians who use wheelchairs have no choice but to travel down the shoulder of a road or cross at non-intersections, as there are no sidewalks or crossings, a disconcerting reality. Advocates blame this dangerous fact on poor infrastructure, with not enough governmental attention to sidewalks or accessible transportation. Yet, with 4 million miles of paved roads in the U.S., we will never have coast-to-coast sidewalks or transportation, where pedestrians will always have to interact with roadways at some point. In this way, it’s vital that, no matter the right of way, pedestrians who use wheelchairs lookout for themselves to the best of their abilities when interacting with roadways.

When one finds oneself in a situation where there’s no sidewalk, one should be smart about it, taking all necessary precautions to travel as safely as possible. One should stay as far as possible outside of the flow of traffic; one should wear blaze-colored safety clothing to dramatically call drivers’ attention; one should fly an orange flag to increase the wheelchair’s visibility; and, one should avoid inherently dangerous roads and situations altogether. Yes, a pedestrian may have the right of way; however, one should still take whatever steps possible to ensure one’s own safety above all else.

I write on this topic from great personal experience, having spent 31 years as a pedestrian using a wheelchair, including using my wheelchair to get back and forth to work till this very day – and I know the pitfalls and hazards, from no sidewalks to drivers running red lights. However, I’ve dedicated myself to not becoming a statistic, where I strive to take every precaution possible to stay safe. If there’s a sidewalk, I’m on it; and, if there’s a crosswalk, I use it. I wear a blaze-orange safety coat, and I fly a safety flag. And, I never assume for a second that being on the road is in my favor, even when I have the right of way. I know that the law does not ultimately prevent pedestrian accidents, it merely assigns liability, and I have no interest in being on the winning side of the law after being hit by a car; rather, my goal is to not get struck in th first place.

From these perspectives, fighting to allow pedestrians who use wheelchairs increased access to roadways truly defeats safety and accessibility. I agree that it’s unrealistic to assume that no one with a disability ever has to travel down the shoulder of a road out of necessity – the reality is that some have to, where there are no sidewalks, and they shouldn’t be hassled by the police if traveling with prudence. However, one’s recognizing necessity is a lot different than literally advocating wheelchair use on roadways for the sake of “personal liberty,” as suggested by some. As a result, what we really need to do is fight to keep wheelchair users off of roadways by advocating increased access to sidewalks and transportation, encouraging our peers to stay safe through logical channels, to not become the latest tragic news story.

Indeed, when there’s no sidewalk or accessible transportation on our local routes, let us not pursue the right to use our wheelchairs on dangerous roadways; but, instead, let us assert ourselves with City Hall that there needs to be more sidewalks and transit services to keep us safe and independent in our local communities. That is, as pedestrians who use wheelchairs, let us fight for safety through accessible sidewalks and transportation, not seek the skewed right to become roadway fatality statistics in the name of personal liberty.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

One thought on “Road to Danger”

  1. I just wrote about this for Blogging Against Disablism Day and didn’t realize someone else had recently covered it. You make a lot of good suggestions that I hadn’t thought of–one of my commenters asked for suggestions and I was a bit at a loss–I’m aware of the problem, but not how to solve it.

    I’m in agreement with you here–in many areas it’s unsafe to use roadways if there’s an alternative. I’m hoping raising awareness can reduce fatalities. It’s shocking how many have died this way.

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