Electric wheelchairs on foot paths sure scare people, there really is no doubt about it. They frighten girls, freak kids out and startle seniors.
In the busy streets of Melbourne pedestrians duck and weave, whilst others are lost in their own world and walk obliviously. When I'm driving by myself in my chair I am unencumbered, so I travel at quite a brisk pace to reach my destination. I'm not sure why this is, maybe because it's easy, sometimes it's fun, but it's most likely because I'm often late!
Without building myself up too much, I never collide with anyone, at least not when I'm sober. And I have to say, even when I have had a bit too much beer I can still drive pretty darn well. So with that said, perhaps the worst thing you can say to an electric wheelchair user is, “Don't run me over!” That's a big no-no! Even if you are joking and being flippant, saying that actually makes me want to run into you.
When you are in a wheelchair, or indeed a standard pedestrian, there are often stand-offs with other pedestrians on the footpath or in shops. You know the drill, someone is blocking your path and they move, but at the same time you copy them and shift in the same direction. There is an awkward look between all parties involved as you both move back into the same position, it is at that moment when everyone apologises profusely and a gap finally appears.
These stand-offs in an electric wheelchair are a lot more one-sided; I'm in the driver's seat (sorry) and the other party is almost always the one that apologises and moves out of the way, even if I don't want them to and I am in the wrong. I say almost, because there are a few situations where I believe I should definitely give way. I want you to rank the following and tell me who you think deserves to be given way on a footpath the most:
· A young person in a manual wheelchair
· A young person in an electric wheelchair
· An attractive young woman or young man
· An unattractive man or woman
· A young woman or man with a pram
· A blind person
· An older person
· An older person walking with a cane
· An older person in a scooter
· A blind, elderly albino woman in a manual wheelchair being pushed by her frail husband
Please tell me in the comments, you will, won’t you?
Anyway, with the previous paragraph withstanding, there are normally few issues regarding driving on a footpath in an electric wheelchair, even if it is extremely busy. Crossing roads is quite easy, and drivers often stop when they see you - sometimes even in the middle of roundabouts, I love some occasional positive discrimination! Of course there is the occasional annoyance, ramps up to the footpaths being in illogical places, and the ever enduring problem of steps at the front of shops. But I’ve covered these topics before, and I don't want to repeat myself.
I have recently discovered that driving with a fellow electric wheelchair multiplies some phenomena I already experience. I briefly mentioned that electric wheelchairs scare pedestrians. One electric wheelchair certainly scares pedestrians, but two? The result is blind panic! The looks on some people's faces when they see us... Many are physically startled and take a jump back, some even let out a loud “woah” as they move out of our vicinity in record speed. It is similar at every road, intersection and roundabout - when drivers cast their eyes on one wheelchair they consider stopping and often do, yet when they see two, or heaven forbid three, something takes over them and they slam on their brakes whilst simultaneously waving at us with a nervous grin.
New problems and considerations crop up when there are two electric wheelchairs on the footpath, as opposed to one. The speed at which you travel at is an obvious consideration, and this involves quickly weighing up the capabilities of the other persons electric wheelchair in comparison to your own. Can their chair handle rough ground? Are they as aggressive (perhaps uncaring?) as me with regards to swerving in and out of pedestrians? Do you travel single or double file? So many questions!
Traffic lights can also cause a problem; do you stay on the safe side and cross only when they are green? Or should I be a little naughty and quickly cross whilst they are still orange? I don't want to leave my compatriot behind or cause them any undue stress on account of my recklessness! If I go too fast I might stress out the other driver! And if I potter along at a slow pace they might think I'm being patronising!
Then there is the capability of the driver themselves; do they have perfect use of their arms? Perhaps they have a wheelchair controlled by a head-array type system and driving is slightly more difficult? Maybe they are plain ol’ left-handers (a quirky bunch).
Who opens the door to enter a shop or bar when there are two or more electric wheelchairs? The list continues, and I'm not even going to talk about trying to find space in a restaurant with two electric wheelchairs, let alone a concert or a club, that's a whole different story.
I think about strange things, that's a given. Yet I still think the social etiquette of an electric wheelchair driver is a tricky business.