Most of us wouldn’t think that hang gliders require the same regulation through rules and laws as airplanes and helicopters. Most of us probably wouldn’t think that wheelchairs, even if motorized, should logically be governed by the plethora of traffic laws and rules applied to cars, buses and trucks driving down our streets and highways. After all, a wheelchair enables someone who can’t walk to achieve a personal mobility equivalent to walking. A wheelchair does not function as a car, truck or bus functions but instead acts as its occupant’s legs.
Of course, no one would think to charge a drunken walker with any crime if they were hit by a passing car while walking in a crosswalk. But prosecutors in Lincoln County, Oregon did charge James Greene with driving a motor vehicle under the influence of intoxicants, DUI, after he drove his motorized wheelchair into a crosswalk and hit a moving pickup truck. Apparently not thinking his personal injuries from that collision were sufficient punishment, Mr. Greene was convicted of the crime which necessarily results in restrictions on his license to drive real motor vehicles such as cars, trucks and buses.
Fortunately, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed Mr. Greene’s conviction. State v. Greene, 383 Or. App. 120 (2016). It is, however, unsettling that the Court of Appeals thought the issue of whether driving a wheelchair in a crosswalk was subject to the motor vehicle code governing driving under the influence of intoxicants was “a close call”. Even more disquieting, the Court noted that it would have affirmed the conviction if Mr. Greene had driven his wheelchair on a bike path instead of in a crosswalk; in Oregon, anyone operating a motorized wheelchair in a bike lane or bike path is subject to the motor vehicle code and, if intoxicated, can be convicted of DUI.
The possible conviction of motorized wheelchair drivers for DUI raises interesting questions. For instance, will someone convicted of DUI for operating a motorized wheelchair while under the influence of intoxicants in Oregon be required to install an ignition interlock device on their wheelchair? Will such criminals suffer restrictions on their right to operate a motorized wheelchair during the suspension of their right to drive a motor vehicle? These are questions which only bored prosecutors would consider worth pondering over drinks in the evening.