In the United States, pedestrian deaths continue to increase, with thousands of people falling victim to dangerous and distracted motorists each year. For wheelchair users, vigilance is key when utilizing streets and sidewalks, as the user’s low profile can be more difficult for drivers to observe.

At least once a week, I find myself having a close call with a motor vehicle — hurried drivers fail to proceed with caution and do not respect pedestrians’ right-of-way. The stories of vehicles striking pedestrians, many of them wheelchair users, are endless. Take a look at these recent stories:

According to data released by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), U.S. pedestrian fatalities have increased 19% within the past three years. GHSA found that, from 2010 to 2021, pedestrian deaths increased by 77%, faster than the 25% increase of all other traffic fatalities. This trend line is deeply concerning, and is a sign that urgent action is needed at all levels of government.

For wheelchair users, the following three actions would have an enormous impact to the safety of American roadways.

Ban vehicles from turning right on red, and pursue “exclusive phasing” for pedestrians

In 1975, in the midst of a global oil and energy crisis, Congress passed the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA), which required states to lift restrictions on right turns on red. It was estimated that drivers would save 1–5 seconds when turning at signals, which proved true, but the change in law resulted in a dramatic increase in accidents involving pedestrians.

No turn on red sign at a street intersection.

Many drivers, before even stopping at a red light, turn their heads to the left in search of space between oncoming vehicles. Every day, pedestrians are seriously injured or killed when drivers turn right without checking for pedestrians in the crosswalk.

In the City of Boston, where I live, many intersections have “exclusive phasing” for pedestrians, periods where all vehicles are stopped and pedestrians can cross in any direction or diagonally. During the daytime hours, these exclusive phasing periods are automatically included within the traffic control cycle, meaning that pedestrians are not required to press the crosswalk button unless they require an audio signal.

A 2015 memorandum published by the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) states that “exclusive phasing is most often considered for intersections in downtown areas or central business districts with high pedestrian volumes” and that, barring a driver’s failure to observe the red light, such a configuration “eliminates pedestrian-vehicle conflicts during the pedestrian phase.” This of course necessitates banning right turns on red.

While the City of Boston has proposed a series of criterial for when and where exclusive phasing should be utilized, it is my belief that it should be used at every intersection that joins two perpendicular streets. As we transition to electric vehicles and reduce reliance on private vehicle ownership, cities must adopt pedestrian-first policies, particularly those like Boston with a robust public transportation system.

Eliminate the crosswalk button… or make them accessible

Several of my friends have disabilities that prevent them from lifting their arms, making it impossible for them to press crosswalk buttons. At intersections without pedestrian signals that are engaged by default, they require the assistance of others to activate the crosswalk indicator. One should not have to press a button to cross the street!

Even for those who can press a button, such as myself, many of those buttons prove inaccessible. I frequently find crosswalk buttons installed on posts set apart from the sidewalk, sometimes feet away and separated by soft sand or grass. If crosswalk buttons are to remain, flat pavement must extend to and around them, so as to allow wheelchair users and other people with disabilities maximal access.

Additional features can also improve the safety of crosswalks for all pedestrians, such as the lighted truncated domes in Melbourne, Australia. Visibility is key for the safety of wheelchair users and all who use sidewalks.

Install sidewalks on every public roadway

One of the first articles that I wrote on this website, entitled Wheelchairs Belong On Sidewalks, Not Streets, reflected on the loss of disability rights advocate and wheelchair user Frank Barham, who was killed on a Georgia roadway. His death was a preventable one, if only the street had a sidewalk!

Wheelchair user on street next to a highway patrol car.
Frank Barham on a roadway next to a highway patrol car.

I recently traveled to Cary, North Carolina to watch my alma mater compete in the NCAA Women’s College World Cup. The city has no wheelchair taxis, few city bus routes, and countless streets without sidewalks.

In order to travel between my hotel and the WakeMed Soccer Park, I had to drive my wheelchair around blind corners in the face of oncoming traffic, cross dangerous railroad tracks, and “jaywalk” across a poorly lit two-lane road with a high speed limit — I was terrified. Riding a wheelchair in the street is a death wish, but I fortunately left North Carolina alive.

My power wheelchair comes equipped with headlights and tail lights, an important safety feature that all new wheelchairs should be equipped with — not as an expensive add-on, but as a necessity fully covered by health insurance. In the absence of adequate sidewalk infrastructure, powerful headlights (like those demonstrated in the photo above) can be the difference between life and death.

Until the necessary investments are made to install sidewalks on every street in America, speed limits on roads without sidewalks or separated bike paths should be limited significantly — perhaps to as low as 10 to 15 miles per hour, just as they are in school zones.

Final Thoughts

The United States has long given vehicles priority over pedestrians, with significantly more investment in streets and highways than in sidewalks, bike paths, and public transportation. As reliance on private vehicles and taxis has increased, the pedestrian death toll has skyrocketed. The fact that wheelchair users continue to be killed in collisions with motor vehicles points to the critically unsafe conditions that require urgent remediation from local, state and federal governments.

What would you do to make streets and sidewalks safer for yourself and other pedestrians with disabilities? Join the discussion in the comments below.

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