Disabled Road Safety Guide

For pedestrians and drivers

The percentage of people in the United States with a disability has risen gradually in recent years and is now above 13%. This stems from a wider understanding and diagnosis of various disabilities, as well as an aging population (older people are more likely to have a physical handicap).

This translates to a growing number of road users who have a disability; in addition, a growing number of pedestrians are likely to have a disability.

The nature of disabilities greatly varies, but those road users who do have disabilities often require some sort of adaptive technology to travel. As a result – whether pedestrian, driver, or passenger – some disabled people require additional accommodations when it comes to using the road.

Percentage of People in the U.S. who had disability from 2008 to 2017

As towns and cities across the United States are becoming more accessible to disabled people, it is more likely that disabled people will use roadways, sidewalks, and other public spaces. According to a report on road safety, the average person with a disability takes 4.7 trips outside of the home per week.

This number is likely to rise as a result of increasing inclusion in the architecture of civic spaces. Therefore, for every road user, whether in a car, a motorcycle, or a pedestrian should know how best to accommodate someone with disabilities.

This page will show how each road user can be as considerate as possible, as well as how those with disabilities can best interact with roads and the spaces around them.

Being disabled is no longer the limitation it once was, as adaptive technology has improved. By being considerate road users, it is possible to ensure that road users and pedestrians with disabilities are as safe and experience as few difficulties as possible.

Adaptive Vehicles

For many disabled drivers, adaptive technology makes it possible for them to drive. Adaptive technology refers to any addition or modification to a vehicle making it accessible for someone with a disability.

More and more adaptive technologies are now available for drivers, ranging from something as simple as a seat cushion to a fully modified car.

The NHTSA estimates the possible cost of a brand new vehicle with adaptive technology to be $80,000, although some modifications are far less expensive than this. The NHTSA recommends the following steps when considering an adaptive vehicle, in order to make sure it is as safe as possible.

determine needs

The first step to finding the right adaptive vehicle is to undergo an evaluation from a driver rehabilitation specialist. To find a specialist (and to investigate potential funding options from local organizations) check with your state’s Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (ADED) or the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

In this evaluation, the specialist will evaluate:

  • Level of muscle strength and range of motion

  • Reaction time and overall coordination

  • Decision-making skills

  • Driving ability with different adaptive technologies

The specialist will then write a report giving his or her specific recommendations on both what adaptations are safest for you, and where you can get training to use the adaptive technology that is recommended.

Find the right vehicle

Once you have your report, it’s time to either modify an existing vehicle or to buy a vehicle with the correct modifications. Your driver rehabilitation specialist can advise in either case, although ultimate responsibility lies with you. The national body – the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) will be able to provide you with information on the correct vehicle.

Ultimately, when you are shopping for a suitable vehicle, the NHTSA recommends the following checklist of questions to ask:

  • Is the vehicle able to accommodate the equipment you will need (particularly with regards to weight)?

  • Is there enough space at home and at work for this vehicle (including if you need to exit with a ramp or a walker)?

  • Will there be enough space for passengers if the vehicle is modified?

  • What other options does the vehicle require in order to be operated safely?

If your vehicle is funded by a third party, there may be additional requirements – it is always best to get this in writing.

In addition to these questions, the NHTSA recommends that you look for the following features in any vehicle in order to be as safe as possible:

  • Large doors (both height and width)

  • Large print on gauges

  • Foot pedals that can be adjusted

  • The ability to move the seat in all directions, including raising it to give the driver a 3-inch view over the steering wheel (when adjusted)

  • Large doors handles and knobs (interior and exterior)

  • Ignition on the dashboard, rather than on the steering column

  • Support handles to facilitate entry and exit

Qualified dealers

One of the most important aspects of adapting your vehicle is making sure that the work is undertaken by a qualified dealer. Adaptions such as raising or lowering a vehicle can have major implications for safety, and if not done properly can mean that the driver does not have a full view of the road, or that the vehicle cannot operate safely.

In order to find a dealer who can make the modifications to the requisite standard, you can check to see if the dealer is registered with the NHTSA.

You can also ask your driver rehabilitation specialist, as it’s likely that they will have referred people successfully in the past.

The NHTSA recommends asking the following questions of any potential dealer in advance of getting a quote for work:

  • Is the dealer registered with the NHTSA?

  • Is the dealer registered with NMEDA (including the Quality Assurance Program)?

  • What training/qualifications/endorsements has the staff received?

  • What warranty will they provide on the work (the longer the better), and can they provide ongoing service/maintenance?

  • Does the dealer have easy access to replacement parts (either in stock or accessible within a few days)?

Training

Once you have had the adaptive equipment installed on your car, you will require training on how to use it, as well as how to operate a car safely and effectively. There is plenty of material available online and through organizations such as the ADA, the NHTSA. However, you will also need practical training in order to be able to drive safely on the roads.

Driver instruction will usually be covered either by state vocational rehabilitation departments or workers’ compensation, although this will usually be contingent upon you using a specific instructor.

A key point recommended by the NHTSA is that you take a family member or close friend to your lessons with you, as it is vital that you have someone else who can drive your vehicle in case of emergency.

Maintaining your vehicle

It is critical that you maintain your vehicle to keep it as safe as possible. Adaptive vehicles require more frequent checks than other vehicles to ensure they are operating smoothly and safely. This will depend on the nature of your modifications and should be confirmed with the dealer in advance.

Some regular maintenance, however, can be done at home, and you should set aside a regular slot each month (at least) to check the following:

  • Check tire pressure, ensuring it matches the recommended levels. Aim to do this once a month or before a long trip.

  • Changing oil per your vehicle’s manual – as well as all other fluids (steering, brake, and engine coolant) at the same time.

  • Check all lights on the car (headlights, brake, parking, reverse, and turn signals).

  • Clean windows and headlights.

  • Once a year, place your vehicle on a service lift for a routine inspection from road hazards.

Disabled Pedestrians

Along with disabled drivers or passengers, there is also a danger to disabled pedestrians. Often this danger comes from cars, in combination with the potential reduced mobility, vision, or hearing that comes from a disability. The following are common steps and pitfalls to avoid:

Street Boundaries/ Crossing the street

For those with reduced vision, street boundary clues are important in keeping pedestrians out of the road. The ADA mandates ramps and other signals for those with limited vision; however, there are other clues you can use to know that you’ve reached the crosswalk, such as the noise of traffic, or even a change in wind direction.

Some intersections are equipped with beeping mechanisms that let visually impaired people know when it is safe to cross the street.

Railroad crossings

Pedestrian railroad crossings can be especially dangerous for individuals in wheelchairs, walkers, or with general vision/hearing loss. Taking additional care at these crossings is imperative. For example, you should always factor in a longer crossing time than other pedestrians.

Plan your route in advance

If you are using a mobility scooter, a wheelchair, or a walker, planning your route in advance will help you to know if there are sections of your drive that are unsafe or inaccessible. Traveling it in advance with the help of someone else, or even telephoning ahead will let you know if you need to make any unsafe maneuvers in order to complete the route.

Obey the rules

Although you can’t guarantee that other road users will obey the rules, you can maximize your own safety by always sticking to the rules of the road.

This will ensure that you do not take any actions that other drivers cannot predict – one of the biggest causes of accidents on the road. That means that you should only cross on designated crosswalks, always obeying the signals. Not only will it help keep you safer, but it is actually the law.

Considerations for
Non-Disabled Road Users

If you are a non-disabled road user (whether in-vehicle or pedestrian) you have a duty of care towards other road users. There are certain steps you can take to help disabled road users be as safe and unimpeded as possible. State DMVs and Departments of Health have given the following advice for drivers when encountering disabled pedestrians and road users:

Be patient

When disabled pedestrians are crossing the street, drivers should give them additional time and space. Attempting to rush the pedestrian make cause them to make a decision that endangers their safety.

Wheelchair users are pedestrians

Regardless of whether a wheelchair user is on the road, and whether the wheelchair is motorized or not, all wheelchair users count as pedestrians. Treating them accordingly will make everyone safer.

Be mindful of curb ramps

Although the ADA mandates the installation of curb ramps, these are not always located immediately on crosswalks. Disabled pedestrians may, therefore, take an indirect route to cross the road. Again, this means that you should give them additional time and space.

Know when to stop

When stopping at a crosswalk or other junction, there is always the temptation to stop as close to the line as possible. However, for pedestrians using a cane, this may not leave enough room. Give additional space before the line to allow all types of pedestrians to cross.

Turn carefully

Turning right on a red light is especially dangerous for disabled pedestrians. Those in wheelchairs or mobility scooters may be at a lower level than other pedestrians. Other pedestrians with disabilities may also move at a slower rate.

When turning right on red, check mirrors regularly and proceed at a slower speed than you would normally expect. Anticipate as you approach the junction to give you advanced warning of any potential issues.

While the number of disabled Americans has grown, the developments of technology have meant that disabilities are no longer the limits they once were. Disabled pedestrians and road users are now far more mobile than ever before. For other drivers and pedestrians, encountering a disabled road user may require a little additional patience (particularly in the case of pedestrians).

However, in order to keep the road as harmonious, as safe, and as accessible as possible, everyone using the road needs to be courteous and empathetic. Doing so will benefit everyone.

Resources and Further Reading

  • https://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/ped_bike/docs/oecd_safety.pdf

  • https://www.nhtsa.gov/sites/nhtsa.dot.gov/files/umtri-2016-8-wheelchairoccupantstudies.pdf

  • https://www.nhtsa.gov/road-safety/adapted-vehicles

  • https://www.nhtsa.gov/sites/nhtsa.dot.gov/files/documents/adapting_motor_vehicles_brochure_810733.pdf

  • http://www.wcapd.org.za/uncategorized/5-ways-to-ensure-safety-of-pedestrians-with-disabilities

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