Study: Wheelchair users at greater risk of dying in car-pedestrian crashes

WASHINGTON — Local researchers say the person most at risk of being struck and killed by a car is someone who is in a wheelchair, and more than half of those deaths occur at intersections.

Georgetown University researchers were intrigued by another intersection:  the meeting of road safety and disability access. Using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as well as a search of news reports, they crunched all kinds of numbers related to traffic fatalities and detected some disturbing trends.

“Fatal pedestrian crashes occur much more frequently among people that use wheelchairs than we expected,” says John Kraemer, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing and Health Studies, and a scholar with the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.

Working in conjunction with Dr. Connor Benton — now a resident at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital — Kraemer found the risk of being in a fatal crash is actually about one-third higher for wheelchair users than for the general population. Men in wheelchairs are about five times more likely than women to die in pedestrian crashes.

Kraemer says they looked only at risk levels, and not the reasons why. But he says there are some clues.

He says they found that in about three-quarters of the crashes, there was no attempt by the driver to brake or steer away from the person in the wheelchair.  That suggests that the driver was caught off guard, and for some reason just did not see the wheelchair in time.

“Wheelchair users all too often happen to be in a spot in the road where drivers don’t expect them to be,” Kraemer explains, noting that many of the fatal crashes occur at intersections that lack adequate traffic controls.

Other contributing factors include poor lighting and lack of access to sidewalks, forcing people in wheelchairs to go into the road.

Kraemer says there is a message here for communities and agencies involved in traffic safety.

“Ultimately, government has the responsibility for making sure people with disabilities can fully use their communities safely,” he says. “We have to make sure our infrastructure is built in a way that ensures that safety and that access.”

Georgetown Traffic Fatalities Study

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