Driving Wheelchairs Under the Influence

Most driving under the influence laws include bicycles and a broad range of motorized wheeled vehicles in their scope. Oregon is no exception to this. But what’s the rule for motorized wheelchairs? A recent case, State v. Greene, 282 Or App 120 (2016), <http://www.publications.ojd.state.or.us/docs/A154816.pdf>, rules that in most cases, they are not subject to driving under the influence law.

Mr. Greene tried to cross a street at a crosswalk using a motorized wheelchair. He was intoxicated and hit a pickup truck. In the aftermath of the accident, he was charged with driving under the influence. His defense was simple: when in a crosswalk, a motorized wheelchair is not a vehicle. The Court of Appeals agreed.

The Oregon vehicle laws have three conflicting provisions that had a bearing on the case. First, people confined to wheelchairs are included in the definition of pedestrians. Second, for the driving under the influence law, a vehicle is very broadly defined, to the point that it could include motorized wheelchairs. Third, when motorized vehicles are used in bicycle lanes, they are considered to be bicycles. What happens outside of bicycle lanes is not clearly stated.

To resolve the question, the court looked at two major sources. First, it looked to the structure of the vehicle laws and identified a strong distinction between pedestrians and vehicles. It then discussed the legislative records of the addition of wheelchair users to the definition of pedestrians and the law designating motored wheelchairs in bicycle lanes to be bicycles. The purpose of the addition of wheelchair users to pedestrian was to clarify that they enjoyed the same rights of way as pedestrians on foot. The purpose of declaring motorized wheelchairs in bicycle lanes to be bicycles was to legalize their use in bike lanes after police in Eugene began issuing warnings. Based on that history the court decided that the legislature did not intend to make motorized wheelchairs subject to the driving under the influence laws except when in bike lanes.

Officially, the court’s ruling only says that when in a crosswalk, motorize wheelchairs are not vehicles. The reasoning, however, implies that only when they are in bike lanes will they be considered vehicles. So, if you have a motorized wheelchair, you can drink and ride, but only if you stay out of the bike lanes. Note, however that if you run into someone, you could still be found responsible for resulting injuries or damage.

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