Road Access for Disabled Americans


Open Letter to the Department of Justice
March 16, 1998


Speed humps are a barrier to access

Speed humps are barriers for me, while riding in a vehicle, no matter how slowly. Other disabled people also have trouble with speed humps and similar traffic management devices, including traffic circles and speed dips. The problems occur for drivers, passengers and wheelchair/scooter-assisted pedestrians.

It's not rocket science

The devices are designed to cause discomfort for the average driver. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that what is uncomfortable for a healthy person is at best extremely painful and at worst injurious to certain, fragile, disabled individuals.

Vehicular rights-of-way have fallen through the cracks

As part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Congress ordered the development of guidelines on various topics, including "Public Rights-of-Way." Vehicular rights-of-way guidelines fell through the cracks between the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Access Board. Attempts to find information on, or to complain about, roadway access fall through the same cracks.

The current lack of guidelines for vehicular rights-of-way may be due to the fact that, in the past, they didn't seem necessary. Local traffic-calming programs were rare and easy to overlook from a nationwide perspective. Now, however, programs are in place from New York to Florida and from Maryland to Hawaii. Even federal traffic engineers are focusing more attention on local streets.

Regulations require accessibility

Department of Justice regulations include access requirements for state and local government facilities, which are defined to include roads. When a facility is altered or newly constructed, it must be as accessible as possible.

Features are experimental

Traffic engineers often describe their initial installation of speed humps to be part of a traffic calming experiment. Most local, federal and consulting engineers cannot provide evidence of considering, let alone scientifically studying, the effects of speed humps on disabled populations. The net result is that disabled people, unwittingly and unwillingly, become human guinea pigs in engineering experiments.

Speed humps cause problems

With speed hump programs, local governments are taking existing accessible facilities, altering them, and making them inaccessible. When the issue of disabled access is raised, it is often dismissed as a secondary issue. But, available studies - even studies promoting the installation of speed humps - reveal a degradation of overall safety.

Berkeley, California, is one city that made traffic calming more of a real experiment by pausing and evaluating its initial program. In Berkeley, as well as in other communities where traffic calming was seriously evaluated, significant problems emerged.

Other options are available

Non-impact traffic calming measures are available which achieve the goal of reducing traffic speed. Enforcement is a good example. When the dangers of speed humps and traffic circles became evident in Boulder, Colorado, people initiated steps to begin testing a new "photo radar" program as an alternative.

When other measures are used, people whose end goal is speed humps, not speed reduction, fail to implement their hidden agendas.

Motives become clear in public meetings. People who are truly concerned about speeding and safety tend to say: "just solve the problem." People with hidden agendas tend to say: "the problems for fire and ambulance service, the disabled, and residents of other blocks are unfortunate, but..." (This is the point in the dog-and-pony show when "innocent children" are trotted across the stage.)

Perception of livability is not a sufficient reason to deny access

One conclusion from the current draft of "An Evaluation of the Speed Hump Program in the City of Berkeley" is that "the real benefit of speed humps comes from a perceived increase in safety and liveability due to lower traffic speeds(.)" Furthermore, Berkeley has relied on a petition process whereby some residents of a block "vote" to install speed humps, thereby denying access to certain disabled people. One former Berkeley Transportation Commissioner told me that the reason I considered the petition process to be baloney was that I did not understand democracy. Silly me. I thought the intent of Civil Rights legislation, such as the ADA, was to protect minority groups within our wonderful democratic system.

Heard it through the grapevine

The Department of Justice has reached settlements with Budget and Dollar Rent A Car making car rental accessible. And, the DOJ has provided informal guidance about speed bumps in private lots and about roadway access . Yet, through the grapevine, I've heard that the DOJ's position is that the courts will make decisions about speed humps on public roads without guidance. Why? The Budget and Dollar settlements are meaningless if we cannot drive on local streets.

The following quote is taken from an amicus brief filed by the DOJ in Kinny v. Yerusalem. "Once the City undertakes to alter the street, however, the regulations require that accessibility be included in the work." How many people have to be hurt before everybody understands that accessibility is not included when altering a street with speed humps?

Mainstreaming requires access to public roads

The ADA is a law designed to "mainstream" disabled people. Even more basic than mainstreaming are driving to the doctor, going to the grocery store, getting to places of employment and visiting other members of a disability support network.

A step backward for mainstreaming

My objection to this current denial of access to local roads all over the United States may stem from the fact that, since first developing my disability as a child, I have been mainstreamed. True, I have encountered discrimination in employment and in health insurance. True, I've had those "fun moments" when someone thinks I can only be addressed indirectly, in the third-person. True, there are many, many things I cannot physically achieve and I must deal with pain and limitation on a daily basis. But, nonetheless, I have been mainstreamed.

And, I thought that the years I lived as a disabled American under the ADA would be an improvement upon the decades I lived without such protection. Wrong. Nothing in my years of coping with disability has been as injurious, limiting and frustrating as not being able to drive freely on public roads. Every month another job is put out of reach. Every week there are fewer people I can visit. Every day there is another block where I cannot live. Even worse, there is no way to predict which destinations will become inaccessible tomorrow.

Reaching out to other disabled Americans

As more communities install more humps, bumps, circles and dips, more disabled Americans have to chose between injury and access. More have to run a gauntlet of pain or stay at home. More have to risk degeneration when their paratransit van jolts, bounces and sways through circles and dips. More have to detour because they don't have the power to wheel over a hump.

They should not have to hear, as I did for more than three years, that they are the only person with such a complaint. Federal grants fund regional newsletters to keep people informed of ADA related rights and responsibilities. Just in case information about road access doesn't find its way into next quarter's issues, I'm making this letter public. Perhaps, it will help other disabled Americans understand why their roadway access is disappearing under mounds of asphalt.

Justice & Transportation: Provide guidance

It's past time for the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Access Board to take action. The federal agencies, which have been designated to assist disabled Americans, to define the regulations, and to enforce them, should be doing so in this matter.

Make public roads accessible. Halt the harmful aspects of traffic management programs, before more people are hurt.


Emily Lynne Wilcox
P.O. Box 5825
Berkeley, CA 94705

Access | Fire & EMS | Engineering