Traveling on the road in your wheelchair may be even more dangerous than you think. Wheelchair-using pedestrians are over a third more likely to be killed by a motor vehicle than nondisabled pedestrians, according to new research published Nov. 17 in the academic online open-access journal BMI Open.
“The thing that I wish people would take more seriously is maintaining sidewalks and thoroughfares in ways that people who use wheelchairs are able to stay off of the roads instead of being forced into roads in places where it’s not safe,” says John Kraemer, lead researcher for the study and a public health epidemiologist at Georgetown University.
The study, conducted by Kraemer and co-author, Dr. Connor Benton, a resident from Georgetown University Hospital, used data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System and LexisNexis, a U.S. newspaper database. According to the data, 528 wheelchair users were killed in traffic collisions between 2006 and 2012, a rate 36 percent higher than for other pedestrians.
Perhaps most surprising was the finding that male wheelchair users age 50-64 were five times more likely to die in a vehicle collision than the general population. Researchers found that nearly half of all accidents happened at intersections. Of these accidents, almost 40 percent occurred where there were no crosswalks, pedestrian signals or other infrastructure to help people in wheelchairs cross the road.
Improving infrastructure is vital but it isn’t the whole story. Kraemer says drivers need to pay attention to their surroundings and not be distracted by their technology. Urban planners also need to remember wheelchair-using pedestrians when they design roadways but much of the responsibility falls on wheelchair users themselves. Flags, reflectors and lights should be used on road traveling chairs but people with disabilities need to advocate for change. “A huge part of that advocacy movement has to be people who are in wheelchairs because they can tell stories about risk and access in ways that no academic can,” he says.