Rules of the Road

Can motorized wheelchairs use bike lanes? Legislators have some legal cleanup to do

Ian Mackay rode his wheelchair from his home in Port Angeles across the state to Portland, Ore., for a total of 335 miles. Ian rode trails, bike lanes and road shoulders, depending on what was available.
Ian Mackay rode his wheelchair from his home in Port Angeles across the state to Portland, Ore., for a total of 335 miles. Ian rode trails, bike lanes and road shoulders, depending on what was available. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: Is it legal for a motorized wheelchair to use the bike lane?

Answer: Maybe. Let’s start with the story of Ian Mackay. Last August, this man rode his wheelchair from his home in Port Angeles across the state to Portland, Ore., for a total of 335 miles. Ian rode trails, bike lanes and road shoulders, depending on what was available to him. He has an inspiring story, which you can read at iansride.com.

Ian has traveled more than 5,000 miles by wheelchair, so I figured he would be the best person to ask about using a wheelchair in bike lanes.

Before we get into the legal aspects, here is what Ian had to say about the practical side of bike lanes vs. sidewalks: “I personally usually prefer bike lanes to the sidewalk. I go at about 7 mph and often the constant up-and-down from driveway cutouts can be trying in a power chair. This problem can be compounded if you are paralyzed from the neck down and use your face or head to control your wheelchair. Many of us high quadriplegics use a “chin drive” which is ultimately just a joystick mounted right near your chin. The constant up-and-down of curb cuts can make driving difficult.”

He added, “You often don’t know if there will be a curb cut out on the sidewalk where you need to get off.”

On the legal side, Ian sought some advice: “I did speak to the retired police chief of Port Angeles about the legality of being on bike lanes and shoulders of roads. His response was basically it might not be completely legal, but it would be very unlikely for an officer to stop me unless there were complaints.”

Ian said he hasn’t had any conflicts with cyclists when he rides in a bike lane and that cyclists are very accommodating. I also talked with some cyclists, none of whom had any issue with wheelchair users in bike lanes.

Now that we’ve heard from someone who has successfully used bike lanes as part of his wheelchair transportation network, let’s see where it fits within the law.

According to RCW 46.61.400, anyone who uses a wheelchair or power wheelchair is considered a pedestrian. And by law, a pedestrian is prohibited from walking in the roadway when a sidewalk is available. However, there is a provision that allows wheelchair users to travel in the roadway if there is no wheelchair access to the sidewalk. At least in limited situations, a wheelchair user can ride in the roadway.

There is also a law that permits a person using a “wheelchair conveyance” to ride on any road with a speed limit of 35 mph or less. If a power wheelchair is generally not allowed on the roadway but a wheelchair conveyance is allowed, what’s the difference?

A power wheelchair is just what you think it is – a wheelchair with a motor. Or in legalese, a self-propelled vehicle designed as a mobility aid. The law defines it as limited to a top speed of 15 mph and able to be used indoors.

A wheelchair conveyance is similar to a power wheelchair in that it is specifically designed to transport a wheelchair-bound person. But it is required to have a minimum top speed of 20 mph, must comply with motor vehicle or motorcycle equipment requirements, be registered as a vehicle and display a license plate. The operator must undergo a special examination and then be issued an operator’s license. Clearly, we’re not talking about a typical power wheelchair here, and probably not discussing what the original question had in mind.

The law doesn’t do a good job of defining a bike lane, but it does describe it as the part of the roadway set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles. That word “exclusive” pretty much clears up who is allowed in the bike lane. Or does it?

On the Seattle Department of Transportation website it states, “Travelers in wheelchairs are allowed to use bicycle lanes and public roads that have speed limits below 35 mph.” The City of Redmond Transportation Department also advocates for wheelchair users riding in bike lanes. I checked the municipal codes for both cities but could not find any local ordinance that specifically authorizes wheelchairs in the bike lane.

Ian’s take on this conflict is that wheelchairs were probably just not considered when legislators wrote the bike lane laws. If he is right, and it was not the intention to prohibit wheelchair users from riding in bike lanes, I think our legislators have a bit of legal cleanup to do.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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