I watched the wheelchair move slowly down the middle of the road. I often saw the same wheelchair as I drove home from my Huntsville office. Frequently, the wheelchair was in the middle of the road, with no lights, after dark. I worried that someone unfamiliar with the roadway may not expect or see him. It was a dangerous situation.
What if an accident occurs? What if a driver hit the wheelchair? How is the wheelchair classified? Pedestrian or Motor Vehicle?
I know, lawyers parse terms. Lawyers argue details. Lawyers harp on legal classifications. Only a lawyer would openly ponder whether someone was classified as pedestrian or motor vehicle. Yet, in Alabama accident cases, the distinction can be very important. Very important. The rules for pedestrians and cars are very different.
Should a wheelchair be classified as a pedestrian? After all, wheelchairs are not made for highway use. I’ve written previously about the rules that apply to pedestrians in Alabama. Alabama is not a pedestrian-friendly state. Was the pedestrian outside the crosswalk? Was the pedestrian in the roadway? Our laws favor the car driver when these crashes occur. States with larger urban areas have different laws which are often more favorable for pedestrians. From intersections, to crosswalks, to city planning, I’ve written about pedestrian safety several times. In coming years, I believe this will be an increasingly important safety topic for Alabama. Cities like Huntsville are actively planning for travel that supports pedestrians, cyclists and cars, together. Other cities like Tuscaloosa also plan for significant cyclist and pedestrian traffic around college campuses. You can read my prior articles on this blog. I believe we should consider wheelchairs as pedestrians and plan for their use in our communities. In fact, I believe we should plan for the safety of pedestrians, wheelchairs and cyclists in our communities.
Should a wheelchair be classified as a motor vehicle? They use wheels and are frequently motorized. Yet, wheelchairs are not equipped with the safety equipment required of motorized vehicles. Wheelchairs lack the speed, equipment and protection of cars. Wheelchairs are not capable of moving safely in traffic lanes.
Well, your wait for an answer ends! Or, does it? The Alabama Supreme Court recently addressed this issue for the first time. The case of Pruitt v. Oliver involved a crash on Valley Avenue in Homewood. A car driver struck a wheelchair moving in the left lane of the roadway. The Court provided a pretty lengthy discussion of the rules related to wheelchairs. It contained some interesting facts:
- The Federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) specifically classifies wheelchairs as pedestrians. The MUTCD has been largely adopted into Alabama traffic regulations. Our Supreme Court did not find this issue decisive since the MUTCD only governed signs and traffic-control devices.
- Some specific Federal statutes classify wheelchairs as pedestrians. Again, our Supreme Court did not find this issue decisive since these Federal statutes had not been adopted universally across Federal and state law.
- The vast majority of other states classify wheelchairs as pedestrians. Again, our Supreme did not find this issue decisive. The Court noted that the legislatures in most of these other states expressly addressed the issue and defined wheelchairs as pedestrians. The Court then noted that the Alabama Legislature has been silent on the issue. Are you surprised our state legislature has failed to consider an important safety need?
The Alabama Supreme Court looked at the specific language used by our legislature to define “pedestrian” and “motor vehicle.” The Court ruled that wheelchairs fit the actual definition of motor vehicle better. Remember, the court is not deciding the wisdom of one classification over the other. Rather, the court only decides how to interpret the existing statutory language of the Alabama Legislature.
The Alabama Legislature should address the issue. It’s an important policy and safety issue. Most states that have addressed the issue specifically amended their definitions to include wheelchairs within pedestrian safety classifications. Since our legislature has not addressed the issue, the courts are left trying to interpret existing laws which do not specifically define wheelchairs.
We need to build safer communities that plan for all types of travel. This includes supporting infrastructure, proper traffic control, and well-defined legal rights.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm helps people across Alabama following a serious personal injury. If you have questions about an accident or injury, let us know. We are happy to discuss your issues. All consultations are free and confidential.