A man using a wheelchair crosses a street in New York’s Times Square under snowfall during a winter storm in January 2017. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
On a Sunday afternoon in May 2021, Patsy Ellison left her home in Knoxville, Tennessee in her motorized wheelchair and, as she often did, began crossing a nearby street. She never made it.
Even though there was a stop sign, a Dodge Ram pickup truck pulling into the intersection struck and killed 62-year-old Ellison. The driver told police he did not see them on the road.
“We were just devastated. She was such a good person. It’s still hard,” her grandniece, Destiny Dozard, said in an interview with Stateline. “I have a 5 year old and he talks about it every day. He’s still traumatized.”
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Dozard said her great-aunt, who used the wheelchair because of knee problems that made it difficult for her to walk more than a few steps, had a beloved dog named Spartacus and was well-known in the neighborhood, where she regularly frequented a supermarket to buy Hot Cheetos and to buy Slim Jims.
“She’s someone we can go to when we can’t talk to anyone else,” Dozard recalls. “She helped her neighbors when they had nothing to eat and gave them money. She was a darling. It’s crazy that something like this happened to her.”
The streets can be dangerous for wheelchair users. Some are forced to wheel down the street because the sidewalk is broken, uneven, or non-existent. Some have to cross busy roads with multiple lanes. Motorists, particularly in SUVs and large pickups, may not see them because they sit low.
Disability rights and highway safety advocates say some of the funding from the new $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Act, which includes $11 billion for highway safety programs, should be spent on curb ramps, more accessible sidewalks and roads that are so designed to slow traffic and provide safe crossings for people with disabilities.
The law includes the Safe Streets and Roads for All initiative, which will provide $5 billion in grants to local governments over five years to support projects and strategies to reduce accidents and fatalities.
The law also increased funding for the federal highway administration’s state-administered road safety improvement program. It added a provision aimed at improving safety for “vulnerable road users” such as older adults, people with disabilities and cyclists. If these users account for 15% or more of a state’s total annual deaths, it must spend at least 15% of that funding over the next year on improving the safety of these road users.
“The disability community hasn’t always been at the forefront of our mobility planning,” said Jane Terry, vice president of the National Safety Council, an Itasca, Illinois-based organization focused on eliminating preventable deaths. “We can and we must do better.”
Some state and local governments are already trying to figure out how to improve safety for people with disabilities, according to Carol Tyson, governmental affairs liaison at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, a center for civil rights law and policy based in Berkeley, California.
Tyson pointed to a 2019 Massachusetts Department of Transportation survey of state sidewalks and curb ramps, which found, for example, that 31% of the Boston-area’s 7,600 bus stops did not have adjacent crosswalks.
In the Chicago area, the Metropolitan Planning Council and the University of Illinois Chicago released a report last year that focused on whether 200 municipalities had inventoried physical barriers to road and sidewalk access and made plans to remove them, as reported by the Federal Americans demanded Disability Act. Only 22 were able to show they had a plan.
A 2015 Georgetown University study found that wheelchair pedestrians are more than a third more likely to be killed in accidents than non-wheelchair users. Almost half of the deaths occurred at intersections. And in more than three quarters of those killed, the driver did not use any “crash avoidance maneuvers” such as braking or steering.
Overall pedestrian deaths have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as speeding and aggressive, impaired and distracted driving have increased.
Last month, an analysis by the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit organization that represents state highway safety agencies, found that an estimated 7,485 pedestrians in the United States were hit and killed by motorists in 2021, the highest number in four decades.
However, data on pedestrians in wheelchairs is sparse. The federal government collects death data from law enforcement accident reports, but police don’t always know if a pedestrian used a wheelchair, walker or crutches.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted an analysis for Stateline and found that between 2010 and 2020, at least 301 people in wheelchairs and 225 using a cane or crutches died in pedestrian accidents.
These deaths continue to increase.
• In April, a 65-year-old man in a wheelchair was killed trying to cross a street in Salt Lake City after being hit by a car.
• In January, a 58-year-old woman in a wheelchair and her dog were killed in a hit-and-run accident while attempting to cross a street in Tucson, Ariz.
• In early April 2021, a 37-year-old mother of five died in a wheelchair while crossing a street in San Jose, California after being hit by a hit-and-run driver. Just weeks later, a woman using a walker was struck and killed at the same intersection.
“Think of how many communities have a bus stop on one side of the street and a mall on the other and five or six lanes of traffic and no traffic lights or crosswalks there,” said Terry of the National Safety Council. “The crossing point could be blocks away. In the wheelchair they will cross the bus where they get off.”
A 2020 University of Illinois Chicago study found that people with disabilities encounter barriers including “broken or uneven sidewalks, intersections with poor walking signals, crosswalks that are unsafe to cross, curb ramps that are too steep, and fast moving traffic that is too close. ”
These findings are similar to those found by Disability Rights Washington, a Seattle-based statewide advocacy group, when it surveyed 200 people with disabilities who had not driven in the state in the past two years.
“People are afraid to walk or roll around in their communities because of inadequate infrastructure,” said Anna Zivarts, who leads the group’s mobility program.
Some intersections have no signal at all, Zivarts said. “You have to trust that the driver will stop and see you. It’s like a chicken game.”
Another obstacle for wheelchair users: scooters and e-bikes stand in the middle of sidewalks, which can make them not only dangerous but also impassable.
Tanisha Sepulveda, 31, a Seattle architectural draftsman who has used a motorized wheelchair for more than a decade after suffering quadriplegia from a spinal cord injury, wanted to let the public know how bad the road conditions were, so she took part in a video last year , which showed her maneuvering the city streets.
“Sometimes the sidewalks come to an end, or the concrete has caved in, or there’s no curb cut, and you’re forced to stay on the road,” she told Stateline. “I’ve had people yelling and swearing at me for being on the street. They say, ‘Get back on the sidewalk.’ And I’m like, ‘Where do you see a curb cut, mate?’ It is ridiculous.”
Heidi Case, a Washington, DC resident who uses a wheelchair because she has multiple sclerosis, knows these dangers well.
One of the biggest problems in her city is that many sidewalks are not level and the roads often have potholes, making crossing difficult, she said. Some curbs are so steep that she fell out of her chair, face first onto the street.
Case, 61, said she was hit twice while crossing the street: once by a city bus and another time by a car. The car accident threw her 10 feet out of her wheelchair and landed her in the hospital and then a rehab facility.
With the influx of new federal infrastructure dollars, Case, who also chairs two city government transport-related accessibility groups, predicted that cycling and walking advocacy groups will be pushing hard for money to specifically help their members.
“Everybody wants those dollars to be spent on it, and the disability community has to fight to get in there,” she said. “We’ve formed good partnerships with them, but bike groups have lobbying and money and are a huge powerhouse. We lack lobbying. Without our voices and a seat at the table, accessibility will fall short.”
Even if disability groups get what they ask for, there won’t be enough money for infrastructure, said Disability Rights Washington’s Zivarts. She noted that her state conducted an analysis last year that found more than $5 billion was needed to make state roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists. This is the total amount of funding for the Safe Streets program nationwide.
“The infrastructure financing is a drop in the ocean,” said Zivarts. “It is far from enough to address how dangerous and disjointed our pedestrian networks are. We will need a lot more.”
Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service operated by the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reports and analysis on state policy trends.