Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Wheelchair DUI

I was telling @Reemski recently that I could give her a few horror stories about wheelchairs and drunk driving. That is, getting charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) while being in a wheelchair, rather than at the wheels of a car. Time has come for me to tell those stories, to bring a few points of interest to the fore.

So, yeah. Wheelchairs users can, and have gotten done for "drinking & driving". And I’m not talking about actually driving cars. Done for DUI while in their wheelchairs, in the street. There are many issues at play here, many different circumstances that can change the perspective significantly.

Photo of a guy in a wheelchair, flipped on his back
Should this guy be busted for DUI?

Drunk On The Highway

A man was arrested and held in County Jail in Milwaukee in 2009 after being found three times over the limit, in his power wheelchair, in the interchange of an Interstate Highway. The story mentions this guy had four other convictions for DUI, but doesn’t say whether or not these convictions were at the wheels of a car, or moving around in his wheelchair.

Also take the 2008 story of an Australian man who was found by police to be passed out drunk in the middle of the night in the turning lane of a major highway a mile away from his home. Should he be done for drunk driving? Clearly he was on the road. Clearly he was drunk. Clearly his behaviour was dangerous to himself and others. The story doesn’t give details about how he came to be there. The circumstances might change how we view it. But on the surface, I would think the man needed to be charged with *something*, although perhaps not drunk driving. To charge him with drunk driving could create a dangerous legal precedent.

Legal Precedents Are Problematic

One might argue that a specific case & rulling in the case caused a problematic legal precedent in Canada. Jon Dykstra suggests in an article on ezinearticles.com, that:

… it seems possible being stationary in a restaurant in a motorized wheelchair […] while impaired is breaking Canada’s DUI laws.

The individual in this case used a scooter for long distances due to some injury, but was able to walk up to 100 m by himself. The police "pulled him over" for erratic "driving" while crossing a street. The DUI laws in Canada define a "motor vehicle" as "any vehicle that is drawn, propelled or driven by any means other than muscular power". So power wheelchairs or mobility scooters are indeed considered a motor vehicle. As the law states you can’t operate, or even just be at the control of a motor vehicle while intoxicated, you are technically not legally allowed to be in a power wheelchair while drunk.

But that decision could be pushed even further. Motor vehicles are not allowed to operate on sidewalks. Does that mean, since a power wheelchair is considered to be a motor vehicle, that people using power wheelchairs are not legally allowed to use sidewalks? Wouldn’t that be the logical expansion of that line of thinking?

Germany Seems To Have It Right

Meanwhile, a similar story to that of our Aussie and our Milwaukeean: 2007, a man is busted while drunk driving his wheelchair in Schwerin, Germany. The police stated that because the man was technically travelling as a pedestrian, he could not be charged with a driving offense. It appears that Germans understand that people use a wheelchair for mobility as a form of extension of legs.

Florida May Be Getting It As Well

In 2004 in Florida, a woman in a power wheelchair collided with a Ford van. She had to be hospitalised for minor injuries. She had been at a cookout, had a few beers. On leaving the premises of the party, she got stuck in sand. Fiddling with her wheelchair made the chair jump forward and down a 4" curb, landing her in the street and then crashing into the moving van. Months after the incident, she was charged with DUI, based on the blood tests that had been done at the hospital when she was being treated. Her attorney argues that under Florida State law, she was using her power wheelchair to "walk" at the time she was allegedly drunk driving, and that she should be considered as a pedesterian, categorised as a person "afoot" instead of driving a vehicle. Bit like the German. A judge in the case said:

“If a wheelchair is the extension of one’s legs and if the law recognizes that a person in a wheelchair is a pedestrian and vehicles should yield to them, then they can make the argument.”

The final decision came and found in favour of the woman – she was not committing DUI. The judge determined that:

"… allowing the definition of a vehicle to include a wheelchair would violate her constitutional rights to move freely because it would treat disabled people differently from others. […] A person in a wheelchair could never tie one back because they would always be stuck in a wheelchair.”

I’m glad the woman got off. Especially that she wasn’t intending to get on the road and drive there, unlike our earlier two bozos.

What Happens When You Change The Circumstances?

So, what happens if you change the circumstances a bit. Let’s take the Australian and the Milwaukeean, and imagine for a second that the only wheelchair accessible route for them to get from point A (the pub) to point B (their home) forces them to use the highway, because there are no curb cuts, no sidewalks, etc. Doesn’t it complicate the decision as to whether or not they were in the wrong? If an able bodied individual gets roaring drunk at the pub, they can walk home. Or they can call a taxi. But most taxi companies don’t have vehicles capable of accommodating a power wheelchair (often weighting near 300 pounds for just the chair + batteries). This means someone in a wheelchair can’t go to the pub and get drunk. Mind you, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get drunk, still, it’s not illegal.

Lack Of Curb Cuts Is Problematic

The issue with the lack of an accessible route can cause real issues, and traumatic ones at that. I know that I am scared for my life everytime I have to wheel in the street to get somewhere because there are no curb cuts – and that is beside the issue of drinking. Every mobility device user has their own horror stories about dealing with sidewalks and curb cuts, or lack thereof. But the one that really sticks to mind for me is the story of a woman who was charged with child endangerment because she had her 4 year old on her lap and she was moving along on the street rather than on the sidewalk. This is not about drunk-driving or DUI, but has some similar issues – that of choice.

It’s not like she had a lot of choice. Public transit was not accessible. The "disability" service from the transit company offered a "curb-to-curb" service – meaning they’d pick someone up on the curb, and drop them off on the curb. And they could not help the woman get off the curb on sidewalks that didn’t have curb cuts. So if she wanted to do anything, such as going grocery shopping, she had to move in the street.

Why were there no curb cuts? That’s a good question, one to which I don’t have an answer. After all, this happened in 1999, nine years after the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city where this happened hadn’t seen fit to install or fix curb cuts when doing repairs to existing sidewalks or installing new sidewalks, something the ADA requires.

Imagine the trauma caused to an individual who had no choice but travel on the street because the City did not respect US Federal regulation, and then has to face trial for endangering their child. The stress would be unbelievable.

To add insult to injury, they had to delay the trial, hence adding to the stress, while they renovated the city’s only courthouse – as it turns out, it was not wheelchair accessible…. After 5 hours of deliberation, the woman was found not guilty.

Now What?

In a perfect world, everything would be accessible and wheelchair users could get drunk and get home safely without getting on the street. And if they are stupid enough to get on the street, then they deserve to have the book thrown at them.

In the meantime, well, it’s not a perfect world, is it?

What’s your take on all this?

2 thoughts on “Wheelchair DUI

  1. Great story. In some cases a vehicle should be a vehicle whatever its means of propulsion and drunk or not, dangerous driving or pushing of this vehicle should be repremanded. Example: A mother pushing a baby carriage. I once came very close to killing a child as her mother was pushing the carriage. The mother did indeed stop at the kerb but I was suddenly confronted with an infant right in front of my car.

  2. In a perfect world, there would be common sense. There would be equality of access.

    I don’t think drinking while wheeling constitutes DUI though clearly a person in a power chair could hurt others if he ran into them while being stoned. Thus he could be punished for reckless behaviour, maybe.
    The story of the mother from Ohio is really sad. But then, what can you expect from the Roller Coaster capital of the world?

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