State Motor Vehicle Laws

Treatment of Wheelchairs and Other Mobility Assistance Devices Employed by Disabled Individuals

The accommodation of electrically powered wheelchairs within state motor vehicle codes is an incomplete but, with respect to the sequence of micromobility developments of  the twenty-first century, influential story.  So long as mobility impaired individuals traveled in wheelchairs or other vehicles propelled by human muscular power (their own or that of someone else), twentieth century motor vehicle codes treated them as pedestrians.  In the language of the U.V.C. they could use both sidewalks and crosswalks with “all the rights and duties applicable to a pedestrian under the same circumstances.”  U.V.C. § 11-1209.  However, electrically powered wheelchairs or mobility scooters met the typical broad statutory definition of “motor vehicle.”  As of 1979 only a handful of states specifically addressed the difficulty.  The terminology they employed varied: "electric battery-operated wheel chairs when operated by physically handicapped persons at speeds not exceeding fifteen miles per hour" (Colorado), "self-propelled invalid chairs" (Nebraska), and "electrically-driven invalid chairs being operated or driven by an invalid (New York).  See Traffic Laws Annotated 11-12 (1979).

By 2000 the disability rights movement, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and its state counterparts had induced a majority of states to create a special exception for powered wheelchairs and their equivalents.  Section 1-159 of the U.V.C. removed “motorized wheelchair[s]” from the otherwise comprehensive definition of “motor vehicle.”  U.V.C. § 11-1103 allowed “motorized wheelchair[s]” to be ridden along sidewalks, defining the category as “[a]ny self-propelled vehicle designed for, and used by, a person with disabilities that is incapable of a speed in excess of eight miles per hour.  A few states followed this approach.  (See, e.g., Conn. Gen. Stat. § 14-1(59); Ind. Code § 9-13-2-196 (excluding wheelchairs from the “vehicle” definition); Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 90, § 1 (excluding “wheelchairs owned and operated by invalids” from the “motor vehicle” definition).)  A more common alternative (not necessarily inconsistent with the first) was to expand the definition of “pedestrian” (“any person afoot” U.V.C. § 1-168) to include individuals using wheelchairs, with or without motors).  (See, e.g., Ky. Rev. Stat. § 189.010(8); Idaho Code § 49-117(5); Tenn. Code § 55-8-101(50).)  Both techniques allowed those using powered wheelchairs onto sidewalks.  However, they differed in their consequences for wheelchair users who found themselves forced to ride in the roadway because of the absence or poor condition of a sidewalk.  Classified as pedestrians wheelchair users would be required to walk on the far left of the roadway (against the flow of vehicular traffic) under the typical vehicle and traffic code.  Classified as vehicles their proper place is with bicycles and other slow vehicles, on the right.

A 2010 Department of Justice regulation interpreting the ADA explicitly directs state and local governments to allow the use of powered “wheelchairs and manually-powered mobility aids” in “areas open to pedestrian use.” (See 20 C.F.R. § 35.137.) The Department’s earlier insistence that a community’s alteration of sidewalks or streets required the installation of curb ramps at affected intersections rested on an understanding that wheelchairs, including those with motors belonged on sidewalks, not in the roadway. (See 28 C.F.R. § 35.151(i).)

Even so, in early 2021, the Alabama Supreme Court counted eight states (including Alabama) that had neither removed powered wheelchairs from their “motor vehicle” category nor granted them the same status as pedestrians. (See Pruitt v. Oliver, 331 So.3d 99 (Ala. 2021).) In Alabama as elsewhere “motor vehicles” are denied use of sidewalks. (See Ala. Code § 32-5A-52.)