On Traffic and Visibility Flags

One of the more irksome social things about being disabled is that people make suggestions to me in ways to improve my life, health, or safety without fully understanding the practical ramifications of those suggestions. One of the most infuriating pieces of advice I often get is to add a safety flag to the front or back of my chair, because, such people say, I am basically invisible to drivers. To a lot of people, this seems like a very “common sense” fix to a very simple problem. But solutions like those pose hidden challenges. and people are often slow to understand why react so viscerally to such a “simple” suggestion.

I have a hard time articulating this on the spot, so I will take this moment on my soapbox to lay out my argument carefully why a safety flag, and many other modifications of that ilk, are neither simple nor desirable.

On the practical side:

Something a lot of people don’t understand about wheelchairs is anything better than a bog standard hospital issue wheelchairis more than a simple piece of durable medical equipment. A chair is in fact finely tuned ecosystems where compromises to agility, weight, speed, and balance need to be considered very carefully. a properly designed chair is an extension to your body. it is the most intimate piece of equipment a disabled person has. Many of us get into it at the beginning of the day, and don’t leave until we go to sleep at night, sometimes not even then. we come to learn every quirk and odity of it. what it sounds like, how it moves, and what it can tolerate. A disabled person who has been in their chair long enough knows it the same degree that you know your very bones.

Therefore, when somebody asks me to make a modification to my chair, it should be understood that they are asking me to make a modification to my body. Visibility flags and other compromises to make myself more visible to drivers might make sense on the surface, but they pose severe challenges to somebody like me.

In my case, I am an otherwise fully independent individual. my chair needs to be able to go anywhere I go. No exceptions, ever. A visibility flag would be a non trivial thing to put on and take off. Though it wouldn’t be permanent in a technical sense, a visibility flag would pose enough of a challenge to put on and take off that it should be considered a permanent alteration to my chair. Worse, a visibility flag physically raises the profile of my chair, realistically placing me at standing height at all times without the actual benefit of standing up. To reiterate, all changes to height width and depth of my chair need to be considered very carefully in light of the fact that it needs to fit (almost) everywhere a human body would reasonably otherwise fit.

People often equate a safety flag to a simple thing like wearing a bicycle helmet. but the truth is it is not. A bicycle helmet is useful for a wide range of occasions when protecting against head trauma is a concern. If you fall off your bike at a high speed, a bicycle helmet will save your head from blunt force trauma just as surely as if a car had sideswiped you. A safety flag by contrast has really only one useful scenario to a wheelchair user: advertising your presence to cars.

In practice there are really only two times that I am ever worried about coming in contact with a moving vehicle: at a crosswalk and in a parking lot. Every other time ( assuming we are both following the rules), I will be separated from vehicular traffic. Yet, for the crime of needing to enter a car centric space for mere minutes each day, I would be told to wear safety equipment that I could not reasonably take off. I ask you, dear reader, would wearing a bicycle helmet still be a reasonable ask if you had to wear it so often that it became a part of you?

On the ethical side:

Drivers are supposed to see what is on the road at all times, not just at waist height. If they cannot see the pavement in front of them, they are driving in such a way as not to have full visibility. Bluntly stated, somebody’s lack of visibility when operating heavy vehicle is not my problem. They are responsible for their vehicle at all times. If they don’t have full visibility of the actual road in front of them, they are not driving safely. there is a reason drivers are supposed to stop BEFORE reaching the crosswalk.

I have also seen it said that I should exercise more caution simply because it is in my best interest considering how high the hoods of modern vehicles are. As a response, I would circle back to my first point. Such individuals are asking me to modify MY body to compensate for a design flaw in THEIR vehicle. I refuse to accept safety on those terms. Nobody has an absolute right to drive a car. I do have a right to basic freedom of movement without the fear of being killed by someone else’s carelessness.

Furthermore, if I was to concede the point that a visibility flag might make me a tiny bit safer in edge case scenarios, I have to wonder what else they would ask me to do if the visibility flag did not in fact prevent an accident. A neon vest? a truck horn? a full set of head and tail lights? I have a various points been counseled to add all of these things to my chair with varying levels of seriousness. But the fact is, no amount of preparation on my part will protect me against infinite carelessness. If it becomes my responsibility to modify my body in a very basic common sense scenario, there will always be the retort that I was just one modification short of being truly responsible.

In short, conceding one modification to my chair opens the door to a whole host of others. Worse, framing this argument in terms of my responsibility to stay safe shifts the onus of the blame away from the driver and onto the victim of the drivers behavior.

If I am to be a victim of bad driver behavior, I will choose to do so on my terms.

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