Interacting with traffic on a daily basis invites eventual problems. Many experts observe, for example, that car accidents are simply a function of how much you drive. Hence, mishap or near miss is in your future without exercising caution. Where does that leave those disabled citizens who need to get from place to place? Are wheelchair occupants drivers or pedestrians? And can you get a DUI on a wheelchair? If considered vehicles, the operators must be drivers. In some places, in fact, wheelchair pilots are subject to drunk-driving laws.
How Does a Power Wheelchair Work?
Seriously? Can you get a DUI on a wheelchair? The notion is actually not so far-fetched when you think of a powered wheelchair as a conveyance. Consider its anatomy and function. The wheelchair is energized by a battery, compelled by motors and controlled by one or more input devices (a joy stick, e.g.). Such gear regulates both speed and direction of the chair. Today’s sophisticated transports have microprocessors that monitor the function of the wheelchair and provide performance feedback to the operator. In this sense, the wheelchair has the equivalent of a dashboard.
Unlike scooters, a power wheelchair holds more than one motor. As with an automobile, the motors transform electricity into drive torque, i.e. continuous rotational motion. The drive train, in turn, directs the torque to the wheels. Ordinarily, batteries in wheelchairs are direct current (DC) and watt-hours measure their capacity to hold energy. The battery could be deep discharge wet cell lead acid or deep discharge gel cell lead acid. Gel cell is so named because the electrolyte inside the battery is of a stiffer consistency.
Industry standards govern the manufacturing of power wheelchairs and their specifications are subject to regulation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Given the careful scrutiny these devices get when designed and produced, the question “Can you get a DUI on a wheelchair?” appears at the very least a reasonable one.
Is a Wheelchair Operator a Pedestrian?
DUI, of course, means “driving under the influence” of drugs or alcohol. No matter what the degree of intoxication, a person walking is fundamentally immune from such prosecution (although other violations might apply). As the above information demonstrates, though, a power wheelchair is not so different from those conveyances we call motor vehicles. Furthermore, they can do more damage than a drunken ambler.
By the same token, the wheelchair-bound assume greater risk when out and about. According to a Georgetown University Medical Center study, users stand a 33 percent higher chance of being hit by a car than do those who walk. This potential is most likely at intersections (…and most likely to happen to men). While this–and other–research treats wheelchair users as pedestrians, not all states and jurisdictions do likewise. Can you get a DUI on a wheelchair when the pedestrian immunity ceases to apply?
Cases in Point
The fact is that some courts are cracking down on inebriated wheelchair operation. The specific facts of each case persuade judges that such discipline is necessary. In 2015, for instance, police apprehended a drunk wheelchair occupant for obstructing traffic flow on a bridge in Florida. It was his third offense. Things are different on the west coast, however. While one Oregon court convicted a wheelchair pilot of DUI after he crashed into a vehicle, the appeals court overturned the decision, declaring the man a pedestrian. More examples abound, including:
Colorado Supermarket Caper
In October of 2015, a wheelchair user moved erratically through a grocery store, knocking over displays and destroying ornamental plants. Responding to the resulting complaint, police found the man to be under the influence of alcohol and–as the “driver” confessed–Valium and Trazadone, to boot. He was neither driving a car nor traversing the open road yet the court delivered a DUI verdict because the governing statute is broad:
A person who drives a motor vehicle or vehicle under the influence of alcohol or one of more drugs, or a combination of both alcohol and one or more drugs, commits Driving Under the Influence. —C.R.S. 42-4-1301.
Again, the issue turns on whether or not the wheelchair is a vehicle; whether or not the driver is actually a pedestrian. The judge in this matter believed so. Whether such convictions lead the state legislature to amend the law is a separate question.
Speaking of Statutes
Nobody has to ask can you get a DUI on a wheelchair in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The answer is a resounding no. Why? The law on drunk driving specifically excludes power wheelchairs as applicable conveyances as long as they are employed for legitimate purposes. In a case of personal joyriding, on the other hand, where no disability was present, the operator might be open to DUI arrest and conviction.
Rascal Gets Justice
Like Colorado, Georgia’s vehicular definition is broad: if it moves, it is covered. In this autumn of 2015 example, the incident arose outside of a market and the wheelchair was actually a mobility scooter. Wreaking havoc outside the store, the arrested individual consented to a breathalyzer test which, in turn, proved he was inebriated. Police impounded his Rascal 300 the way they would a car. Initially, a sports utility vehicle had struck the rascal, prompting the initial police response. It was the operator’s subsequent behavior that gave law enforcement the clue as to his condition.
Power wheelchairs can be both dangerous and vulnerable. Either way, their occupants must have reasonable control over them in order to optimize safety and efficiency, especially when in public places.
As incidents like these accumulate, local ordinances and state traffic rules will likely adjust to address what many disabled may wonder: can you get a DUI on a wheelchair? Will they broaden their definitions, like Colorado? Or narrow them, as with Pennsylvania? What lawmakers do will logically affect what judges will do when the wheelchair users come before them. Hence, the future of this controversial issue rests in the state houses of America.