The late Stephen Hawking was a genius, but he was also, reportedly, a menace on the road. The reckless driving of his mobility vehicles is legendary. After his death, a stream of anecdotes from colleagues at Cambridge told story after harrowing story of near misses and almost-disasters. Hawking shot out from between parked cars. He also nearly collided with bikes. What's more, he narrowly escaped running down pedestrians and crashing into oncoming vehicles. The image of the supergenius causing vehicular mayhem may sound humorous, but accidents involving mobility vehicles are no joke.
If you're involved in an accident while driving your mobility scooter, you could be held legally liable. Worse, you could injure, or even kill yourself or someone else. To play it safe and to get the most out of your mobility scooter, you need to know the rules. First, understand how your mobility vehicle works, and how to keep it running. Next, know your physical strengths and limitations. You should also familiarize yourself with the rules of the road in your area. Finally, maybe, just maybe, consider buying some insurance. All of these things can protect you and your scooter, physically, legally, and financially.
1. Know Your Mobility Vehicles
As with any vehicle, it's important to know how your power scooter works. If you can troubleshoot small problems, or even fix them yourself, then you'll save yourself money and hassle. More than that, though, knowing your vehicle, its purpose, and its limitations can help you to stop problems before they begin.
Some scooters are made for indoor use. Others are for use in pedestrian outdoor areas. Still, other larger scooters have lights and signaling devices and are road-legal. Knowing your scooter's specs and limitations will help you to travel safely and efficiently.
Scooters run on battery power. Range means how far your scooter can go between charges. Smaller scooters have an average range of ten miles. Larger scooters can go for twenty miles or more between charges. Knowing how far your vehicle can go without recharging will help to ensure that you don't get stuck.
The top speed for many mini-scooters is around four miles per hour. That's the pace of a brisk walk. By contrast, some larger scooters can go up to eight miles per hour. And some can travel at even higher speeds than that. Knowing your mobility vehicle's maximum speed can help you to safely integrate into the flow of pedestrian or vehicular traffic.
Some mobility vehicles are designed with indoor use in mind. Others are all-purpose vehicles that go where pedestrians go. Still, others are heavy-duty, multi-terrain, road-legal vehicles that can travel on roads with cars. Know what your vehicle is capable of, and don't ask it to do more than it can do safely.
Be aware that scooters can get stuck in sand or other soft surfaces. They can also slip on ice. Scooters have a high center of gravity and are prone to tipping over if driven over the side of a hill or ramp.
Different scooters come with different arrangements of controls. It's important that you know what they all do. When choosing your scooter, also consider your own limitations, such as upper body strength, your range of movement, coordination, grip, and hand dexterity. You should be able to see and manipulate all of the controls easily and comfortably.
Some questions to consider:
2. Maintenance and Troubleshooting
As with any vehicle, knowing how to perform basic maintenance can save you trouble and money. Moreover, knowing how to fix minor problems yourself can keep your mobility vehicle running safely and smoothly. Finally, keeping your vehicle in good repair can make a breakdown a lot less likely.
First, you should know where the batteries are, and how to charge them. Also, it's important to know how to switch your batteries out. Always have a spare battery ready, in case a battery fails unexpectedly and make sure you have someone who can change it for you.
Check your battery charge before you set out. Better yet, plan any trips so that you can charge the battery ahead of time. Then you will be less likely to run out of steam at the most inconvenient time.
It's important to be able to adjust your scooter for your comfort and use. Can you adjust the height of the tiller yourself? The tiller is the stalk that holds the handlebars. What about the seat? Make sure everything is exactly the way you want it before you head out.
Lights and indicators
The control panel of most mobility vehicles will have various lights and indicators. For example, a light may go on if the battery is low, or if there's a problem with the motor. Know what your scooter's lights and indicators mean. If you can remedy the problem yourself, you'll save yourself time, trouble, and money. If you cannot, then at least you'll be able to explain the problem to a repair technician.
Before you leave the house, do a quick visual check of the indicators. Does the battery have power? Are any indicator lights on? Deal with any problems before you go out.
Check the tires
A mechanic will recommend checking tire pressure and tread before embarking on a long car journey. Likewise, before embarking on any trip in a mobility vehicle, be it to the grocery store or on an overseas adventure, make sure your tires are in good condition. Check for worn places on the treads. Also, make sure your tire pressure is up to snuff. If your tires are air-filled instead of solid, it's a good idea to carry a patch kit with you.
Keep it clean
Keeping your mobility scooter clean, oiled, and dust free will go far to keep it running its best. Make sure to wipe down your scooter if you've traveled through dust, rain, or mud. Look for dust, grit, and dirt in joints and crevices. Read your owner's manual to find out which parts, if any, need regular lubrication. Also, regularly check all moving parts for rust and wear and tear.
3. Know The Rules of the Road
It's not enough to simply follow the law. You must, of course, know and obey the traffic laws as they apply to mobility vehicles. But you must also drive safely and courteously, just like the driver of any other vehicle. A lot of this might seem like common sense. However, as any emergency room nurse can tell you, common sense can be surprisingly uncommon.
Mobility vehicles and the law
In the United States, rules about operating mobility vehicles vary from state to state, and from locality to locality. Some places may even have no rules at all. Check with the department of motor vehicles (DMV) where you are. Some questions you might ask include:
Cyclists, motor vehicles, and pedestrians should give way to wheelchairs and mobility scooters. However, be alert in case they do not.
Safe operation of your vehicle will protect you and those around you. Carefully consider the purpose and the limitations of your mobility vehicle, and your limitations, while driving.
Don't overload your vehicle
It might be tempting to try to carry a week's worth of your family's groceries on your scooter. You might think, for example, to hang a few bags off the handlebars, or to put them on the footrest, but power scooters aren't made for this. Overloading your vehicle could result in an accident, a collision, or a wipeout. That could leave you in a challenging position, or even injured.
Your mobility scooter is a one-person vehicle
Children, teens, and friends might ask you for a "ride." Not only do mobility vehicles have a weight limit, but they are also for one person only. Additional riders can unbalance your scooter and tip it over. Worse, it can cause injury to you, your passenger, and others.
Never drive impaired
No one should need to say this, but it happens. Driving a power scooter while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or certain prescription medications is still impaired driving. Whether it's against the law or not depends on where you are.
One Minnesota man was convicted of third-degree DUI after blowing a 0.17 on a breathalyzer. Police had stopped him after bystanders had reported him for public intoxication. A court later overturned the conviction, saying that a mobility scooter isn't a motor vehicle. But the laws may be different where you are. More importantly, impaired driving can result in injury, property damage and even death. So don't drive impaired.
Bicycles, pedestrians, and other motor vehicles should give way to mobility vehicles, but that doesn't always happen. Remember, first of all, that a mobility scooter is at a lower visual level than either a pedestrian or a car. Consequently, cars might not be looking out for you. Also, we all get distracted.
Second, pay attention to traffic lights, street signs, pedestrian crossings, and other measures to keep all road users safe. Traffic and pedestrian laws apply to mobility scooters, too!
Finally, make an effort to stay visible. Fly a fluorescent safety flag from the back of your scooter. Alternately, you could wear a high-vis vest. Try to make eye contact with motorists, so you know they see you.
Defensive driving is safe driving. Everyone can benefit from keeping their eyes open, staying aware, and following the rules. And that includes operators of mobility vehicles.
4. Know Your Surroundings
Everyone who gets around on wheels has to face certain obstacles. Cyclists, parents with strollers, and people who use wheelchairs and mobility vehicles all become adept at knowing which streets have curb cuts, where you might encounter traffic, and where the elevators are. Having a good mental map of your travel route will get you where you're going with a minimum of trouble, and a maximum of safety. Additionally, apps like Wheelmap and Axsmap can help you to find wheel-accessible businesses, services, and facilities around the world.
Curbs and pavement
Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all pedestrian crossings have curb cuts. Curb cuts make it possible for people using mobility vehicles to use sidewalks rather than traveling on roads. Some corners, however, may not have curb cuts. Before you set out, know where these corners are. It will make your journey safer and more convenient.
Some scooters are better at navigating uneven pavement, bumps, etc. than others. A four-wheeled scooter, for example, is more stable than a three-wheeled scooter. All scooters, though, will come with instructions and tips for handling different kinds of terrain. Familiarize yourself with them, so that when the time comes, you won't have to guess about what to do.
Road and traffic conditions
Sometimes construction and roadworks can close sidewalks and interrupt the flow of pedestrian traffic. Use the Michelin trip planner or a similar app to find road closures and construction areas that may be in your way.
There are safe and unsafe areas for pedestrians. Likewise, some areas are safer for mobility vehicles than others. If you're going to be traveling through unfamiliar territory, know which areas to avoid. Apps like Red Zone, which pinpoints high crime areas on maps, can help.
A collision with a pedestrian or another vehicle could be fatal. What's more, an accident where a mobility scooter is at fault could result in fines or even legal action for the scooter operator. As with any motorized vehicle, having insurance for your scooter could keep an accident from becoming a life-changing disaster. What kind of coverage do you need?
Protect your scooter
Mobility vehicles are valuable. Insuring yours against theft and damage could save you a lot of money and trouble in the event of a disaster. Some homeowners insurance policies cover mobility vehicles. Additionally, renters insurance policies may cover them as well. Double-check with your insurance company to make sure that your power scooter, and your independence, have this protection.
Most places do not require mobility vehicle owners to carry liability insurance. However, just as with a car, liability insurance will protect you if you cause an accident. Check with your insurance agency to see if mobility vehicle liability insurance might be right for you.
6. Be Prepared
Many drivers keep breakdown kits in their cars in case of emergency. These kits may contain, for example, a pair of walking shoes, a flashlight, drinking water, and flares. You don't need to go to those lengths for a quick trip to the grocery store. However, even mobility vehicles break down now and then, and if yours does, it's good to be prepared.
Prepare for weather
Snow, ice, and rain can make pavement slippery. Consider winterizing your mobility scooter with winter tires. Additionally, make sure your batteries are fully charged before you leave -- both your scooter batteries and that of your cell phone. Also, give your mobility vehicle a good check-up before you leave the house. Make sure everything is in working order.
Prepare for emergencies
We've all been stuck between a rock and a hard place. If you do find yourself in trouble, having an emergency kit with you can make a potentially big problem into a smaller one. The ADA National Network recommends a "grab and go" kit that contains the following:
This kit is very important, so make sure you put one together.
Are You Ready for Adventure?
The world is becoming more accessible to people with mobility issues every day. Mobility vehicles can bring unparalleled comfort and independence. But with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. The laws differ from place to place, and the legal status of mobility vehicles is sometimes murky. Nonetheless, vehicle drivers and pedestrians alike all have a duty to behave safely and courteously.
Responsible driving is only part of the equation. To keep yourself safe, it's also important to understand your vehicle's purpose and its limitations. Keeping your scooter in good repair will also go far to prevent breakdowns. Prepare for the worst, but always, always expect the best.
Featured Image: CC by SA 4.0, by Crusader21, via Wikimedia Commons