Off sidewalks, riders are vulnerable
Many worry for the safety of those who take motorized scooters to the streets.
By CRISTINA SILVA
Published January 6, 2007
On most days, 75-year-old Terry Couture is as active as a soccer mom, coasting over to Vinoy Park on his motorized scooter to meet friends and running errands around downtown St. Petersburg.
But while the scooter has given Couture back much of the mobility he lost last year when he was diagnosed with a severe case of diabetes, it also has made him a potential casualty of the speeding vehicles he passes on the road every day.
In the past several months, Couture said he has nearly been struck by motorists a dozen times. Like other scooter riders, he is worried one day his luck on the road will run out.
Motorized scooters look like desk chairs on wheels and are powered by a rechargeable battery. To the medically impaired or disabled, they are often a favored mode of transportation because they are considered sleeker than electric wheelchairs.
And with the first wave of baby boomers settling into retirement, there likely will be a lot more people buzzing down sidewalks and in supermarket aisles in the next few years. According to the U.S. Census, by 2020, the number of people age 50 and older is expected to soar to 118-million.
There have been at least four fatalities involving scooter riders and motorists during the past 20 months. Law enforcement officials don’t keep track of accidents involving scooters, but say for the most part that they are rare.
But that could easily change, they warn, if drivers of both vehicles and scooters do not take better safety precautions. Adding to the problem: the deteriorating condition of sidewalks across the county.
Scooter riders “are encouraged to ride on the sidewalk, but the sidewalks aren’t conducive to being rode on because they are broken up,” said Lt. Phillip Beahn of the St. Petersburg Police Department. “Everybody needs to be aware of (scooter riders), and they need to be aware themselves that the best place for them is on the sidewalk.”
Couture said he is forced to ride his scooter on the road in many places where there are no sidewalks. He keeps a flashlight at his side, and at night he waves it at drivers.
“As long I don’t get hit, it’s okay,” he said. “The people that drive, they don’t look out for people on scooters. You have to watch out for them.”
Shelly Duffy, a manager at American Wheelchairs in Largo, said she strongly encourages her customers not to ride in the street and tells them to attach a colorful flag on the back of their seat so drivers can easily see them.
“They are not meant to be on the road. They only go 5 miles per hour,” she said.
State traffic laws do not mention motorized scooters, but many police officers suggest that scooter riders should act like pedestrians, by following traffic signals and crossing streets only in crosswalks.
“These things are pretty much tools for persons who require assistance in being mobile,” said Marianne Pasha, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. “They are not considered a bicycle or, essentially, a vehicle.”
The county is working on adding more sloped crosswalk entrances so scooters can enter sidewalk crossings more easily, Pasha said.
But scooter riders say government officials are not working quickly enough to ensure sidewalks are accessible everywhere in the county.
Sarah Citrone, who is disabled, began riding her scooter five years ago, first to the supermarket to pick up essentials, and then gradually building up to a distance of about 20 miles a day.
She usually rides on the sidewalk, but if the pavement isn’t smooth, her scooter vibrates and makes her uncomfortable, so she rides in the road instead.
Citrone, 60, tries to drive along with the traffic, but said some drivers do not see her.
“I have come this close to being hit,” she said, holding her thumb two inches away from her index finger, as she rode through the aisles of a St. Petersburg Publix supermarket Friday morning. “You just have to be careful.”
Cristina Silva can be reached at 893-8846 or email@example.com.