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Pedestrian wheelchair users are at increased risk of dying in road collisions, study finds

Each year in the U.S., about 5,000 pedestrians — in and out of wheelchairs — are killed and another 76,000 are injured in crashes on public roads, according to government statistics.

Pedestrians who use wheelchairs are a third more likely to be struck and killed by a car or other motor vehicle than other pedestrians, according to a study published Thursday in the journal BMJ Open.

The findings demonstrate yet another reason why we need to improve our pedestrian infrastructure so that our streets are safer for everyone, including people using motorized or standard wheelchairs.

“When there is poor pedestrian infrastructure or it’s poorly adapted to people with mobility impairments, people who use wheelchairs often are forced to use the streets, or are otherwise exposed to greater risk,” said John Kraemer, the study’s lead author and a public health epidemiologist at Georgetown University, in a released statement.

Each year in the U.S., about 5,000 pedestrians — in and out of wheelchairs — are killed and another 76,000 are injured in crashes on public roads, according to government statistics.

Men at greatest risk

For the study, Kraemer and his co-author, Dr. Connor Benton, a resident at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, used data from two sources: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and news stories about fatal car crashes published on the LexisNexis U.S. newspaper database.

From this data, they estimated that 528 pedestrians using wheelchairs were killed in traffic collisions between 2006 and 2012 — a rate that was 36 percent higher than that for other pedestrians.

The risk was especially high for men who use wheelchairs, especially those between the ages of 50 and 64. They were 75 percent more likely to be killed in a pedestrian-car accident their other men their age.

A failure to yield

Digging deeper into the data, Kraemer and Benton found that more than half of the fatal pedestrian accidents involving people using wheelchairs occurred on arterial roadways — busy streets that serve as “collector roads” to freeways. They also found that about half of the accidents were at intersections.

Of those intersection accidents, almost 40 percent occurred where there were no crosswalks, pedestrian signals or other infrastructure to help people on foot — or in wheelchairs — cross the road.

Most of the accidents — 90 percent — took place during fair weather, and almost half took place during daylight. According to the police reports, 11 of the pedestrians and 9 percent of the drivers had been using alcohol or drugs.

In three-quarters of the accidents, men were behind the wheel of the car or other motor vehicle. The most common reason for the accident (cited by the police in 36 percent of the cases) was failure of the vehicle driver to yield the right of way. In about 15 percent of the accidents, the police said the leading contributing factor was the wheelchair not being visible to the driver.

In 76 percent of the accidents, the driver had taken no braking, steering or other manuevers to avoid hitting the pedestrian.

Making pedestrian safety a priority

“That crashes frequently were attributed by police to a driver’s failure to yield right-of-way underscores the challenges faced by pedestrians who use wheelchairs as they seek to safely [use] existing pedestrian infrastructure,” write Kraemer and Benton.

“Improving pedestrian safety for people using wheelchairs should be a policy priority,” they add. “Some improvements are general to road safety: reducing distracted driving and pedestrian activity, improving safe crossing behaviour, reducing incapacitated driving, and improving pedestrian infrastructure — all of which appear to have played a role in a significant number of fatal crashes identified in this study. Others are specific to pedestrian risks faced by wheelchair users: low conspicuity of the wheelchair and pedestrian infrastructure that is particularly ill-suited to pedestrians who use wheelchairs.”

Under the Americans with Disability Act, roads are required to be wheelchair accessible by having curb cuts and ramps. But, as Kraemer told The Atlantic CityLab reporter Linda Poon, traffic engineers and other urban planners don’t focus enough on people with disabilities.

“If you really want to have zero pedestrian death we have to not only think about pedestrians as whatever our archetype is,” he said, “but also people who use wheelchairs, who are blind or deaf, who otherwise might be at greater risk because of the environment.”

You can read Kraemer’s study in full on the BMJ Open website.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Peggy Reinhardt on 11/22/2015 - 10:21 am.

    It’s happening here!

    Last month I was waiting to walk across Marquette in downtown Minneapolis along with a businessman and a woman in a wheelchair. The driver of white delivery van crossed the pedestrian lane in front of us – in a hurry to make a right turn while he looked left. The van was so close to us as we stood on the sidewalk that I pounded on the front of his van to get him to stop turning on red. He looked downright offended that I would pound on his van and shout at him. That’s when he finally saw the three of us. When he stopped turning, the person in the wheelchair then refused to cross saying she didn’t want to take her chances.
    As cited above, the weather was clear, the driver failed to yield the right of way, and the driver could not see the person in the wheelchair. I wonder what would have happened to the person in the wheelchair if the businessman and I had not acted.

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