Monday, September 28, 2009

Wheelchair, scooter users find danger in Southern California sidewalks, streets, crosswalks

From The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif.:

A week after talking with a reporter about how dangerous it is to ride her wheelchair among distracted drivers and roads without sidewalks, Alice Mares called back with the bad news.

"I was run over in the parking lot."

Her story and the recent case of a wheelchair user struck in Yucaipa illustrate a well-known fact among the disabled: Navigating Southern California's notoriously pedestrian-hostile streets is tricky enough for those on two legs; it can be downright dangerous for people who get around by electric scooter or motorized wheelchair.

Last month, a 43-year-old Yucaipa man was left in critical condition after being struck by a truck while he crossed Yucaipa Boulevard in a motorized wheelchair. The truck was driven by a 16-year-old boy, who police said was not speeding and tried to stop before plowing into Wayne Swanson's wheelchair.

Police in the San Bernardino County city said Swanson was trying to cross the road at an unmarked intersection, a spot where it's legal to cross but where a pedestrian must be on his toes.

Dale Cole (pictured), of Temecula, said he has been hit three times since he started using an electric scooter in 1986. The first accident sent Cole to the hospital.

Cole, an amiable 83-year-old, spends his days buzzing around Old Town Temecula in southwestern Riverside County with his Cairn Terrier, Deletta Mae, in a basket in the front. He and the dog, accessorized with rose-colored sunglasses and a blue hat, are well-known local attention-grabbers.

For the most part, Cole doesn't have problems getting around the relatively tranquilstreets of his neighborhood in Old Town, a tourist spot with shops and restaurants that is designed to be walkable. It's a different story going to the grocery store, when he must cross six traffic-clogged lanes of Rancho California Road . Drivers, Cole said, simply don't pay enough attention.

Mares, 50, said she was cutting across the parking lot of her apartment complex in Perris. She was headed to the mailboxes at the front of the property when a large truck, driven by a man apparently distracted by a conversation with his passenger, struck her wheelchair.

Mares, who has multiple sclerosis, flew about five feet onto the concrete, getting pretty banged up along the way, she said. Her motorized wheelchair still rolls but now it malfunctions constantly, forcing her husband to push her to various errands and doctor's appointments.

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department confirmed they responded to the accident, but said a report was not yet complete and it was not known if the driver would be cited for the crash.

The problem confronts people in wheelchairs and those who ride mobility scooters, the three- or four-wheeled electric devices that travel faster than wheelchairs but require users to steer with their upper bodies.

Scooters and wheelchairs provide much-needed mobility and freedom for people who can't walk and can't drive. But too often, they are put in harm's way.

Because the users sit low to the ground, their heads are often just four feet from the sidewalk. This makes them difficult to see for passing motorists, who may not be paying full attention, Mares said..

Mares said she may buy a long orange flag, or "maybe a flag pole" to attach to the chair to improve her visibility.

A week before she was hit, Mares and her husband navigated the crowded parking lot of a shopping plaza and about a mile of narrow sidewalks and busy intersections to get to a doctor's appointment.

Her route, planned in advance to avoid most of the trouble spots, took Mares past the intersection of Perris Boulevard and Nuevo Road. Manuel Gomez, driving an electric mobility scooter, was struck and killed by a school bus there in 2005.

"It's pretty dangerous," Mares said.

Several Inland police agencies said they don't keep records of how many accidents involve those in scooters or wheelchairs.

The law treats those mobility vehicles the same as pedestrians, which means they are supposed to stay on the sidewalks. But nearly 20 years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, people who ride wheelchairs or scooters said their biggest problem is a lack of adequate sidewalks.

John Fatone, 66, a retired construction supervisor who started using a mobility scooter a year ago because it afforded faster travel than his motorized wheelchair, said his neighborhood in Perris is sorely lacking in sidewalks. Fatone drives a car, but for shorter trips around town likes to be able to be outside on the scooter.

"You go along Perris Boulevard ... there's nothing. There are no sidewalks," Fatone said. "What do I use? What do I do, fly over where we have no sidewalks?"

Perris Boulevard, the city's major thoroughfare and gateway to many stores and businesses, is a hectic multilane road. Approaching the popular Walmart location there can be a difficult proposition, where a lack of sidewalks in spots forces a person in a wheelchair to travel in a bike lane.

Don Hawecker, is a 44-year-old from Riverside who has used a mobility scooter since losing both legs after he was struck by a car while riding his bike nine years ago. He says his city is getting better for the disabled.

Hawecker is a member of the city's Commission on Disabilities. The commission takes complaints about disability-related issues, like lack of curb-cuts in sidewalks, directly to the city.

He said there are still obstacles, but many of the city's trouble spots are being addressed.

And despite challenges, wheelchair and scooter users said they continue to brave traffic because it beats the alternative.

Cole drives to the various trash barrels in the neighborhood, looking for returnable cans and bottles, but the main goal is to get out of the house, he said. A few times a month, he makes the six-mile trek up busy Jefferson Avenue to the Murrieta Senior Center.

"I know that if I had to sit in the house all these years and watch that stupid TV, I'd have been dead a long time ago," Cole said.