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Lupke’s Accident Spotlights Danger

Tuesday September 23, 2003

Fred Lupke, a fighter for Berkeley’s disabled population, remained in a coma Tuesday at Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley where he was hospitalized after a car struck his motorized wheelchair Thursday evening. 

“He suffered massive head trauma. The doctors don’t know if he will recover,” said longtime friend Rich Rhodes. 

According to Berkeley Police Officer Matthew Meredith, Lupke was traveling westbound on Ashby Avenue about seven feet from the curb in the right lane between Harper and Ellis Streets when a woman driving the same direction struck the back of his chair, throwing Lupke and the chair about 55 feet. 

California law requires that riders keep motorized wheelchairs on sidewalks. 

Lupke’s friends agonized over his judgment to ride down Ashby in the thick of rush hour traffic with fellow drivers heading straight into the setting sun. But, they said, uneven sidewalks along Ashby and speed bumps on neighboring roads might have given him little other option. 

“I never go on Ashby because the sidewalks are all broken up,” said Blane Beckwith, president of the local chapter of ADAPT an advocacy group for the disabled. 

“There is a big hole in the sidewalk [where Lupke was riding],” Beckwith said. “If you hit it, you break your chair.” 

Beckwith said many of the curb cuts to the sidewalk were built incorrectly on Ashby and throughout Berkeley, making it even more difficult for people on wheelchairs to get off the street. 

The city shares responsibility for upkeep of Ashby—a state highway— with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), but the sidewalks are the city’s responsibility, said Councilmember Dona Spring, who also rides a motorized wheelchair. 

Spring said after the defeat of last year’s Ballot Measure L last year—which would have funded pedestrian safety projects—the city doesn’t have the money to make needed repairs. 

Lupke’s closest alternatives to Ashby—Russell Street to the north and Prince Street to the south—have speed bumps which are painful for some disabled people to traverse. 

“Fred avoided speed bumps if he could [because they caused him pain,]” said Rhodes, who said Lupke tended to choose the closest distance between two points and often rode down busy streets. 

The city issued a moratorium on building more speed bumps several years ago after disabled residents complained that they caused pain and firefighters reported that they slowed down and damaged fire trucks responding to emergencies. 

In 1999 the Commission on Disabilities petitioned the city to remove them, but the council declined. 

Peter Hillier, the Berkeley’s Director of Transportation, said that about 50 Berkeley streets have speed bumps. 

“I have no access to roads with speed bumps,” said Emily Wilcox, chair of the city’s Commission on Disability. Wilcox, who is not wheelchair-bound, said driving over the bumps in her car causes severe pain. 

Beckwith said many wheelchair riders choose to avoid the bumps because they damage their chairs. 

“MediCal is going into the crapper. They’re not going to be willing to pay for new chairs and people are having trouble getting new chairs and chair repairs authorized,” Beckwith said. 

The average motorized chair costs about $15,000, he said, and replacements were granted every five years. 

Disabled advocates say Berkeley streets are getting more dangerous for wheelchair riders. “I have two or three close calls a month,” Beckwith said.  

Sharon Spencer was killed two years ago when her wheelchair was struck by an oncoming car as she crossed Ashby at Piedmont Avenue, and Karen Craig was struck two weeks ago crossing Colusa Street at Solano Avenue when a motorist answering a cell phone call didn’t see her in the crosswalk. She did not suffer serious injuries. 

Police treat people on wheelchairs as pedestrians and do not track the number of wheelchair-related accidents. 

Wheelchair riders do credit Berkeley for taking the lead in safety for the disabled. “Berkeley is the best,” Beckwith said. “It at least tries hard for good sidewalks and curb cuts.”  

No doubt Fred Lupke deserves some credit for Berkeley’s high marks.  

Lupke moved to the area in 1986 when he knew a degenerative back condition, caused by a spinal tumor diagnosed in 1973, would soon force him into a wheelchair. 

“He knew about the Center for Independent Living, and the weather, and he thought it would be a good place to go,” said Rhodes, who moved to Berkeley at the same time. 

After he got his first chair in 1988, Lupke became a tireless advocate for the disabled, fighting for access to city buildings and parks. 

Although his degree is in linguistics, Lupke used his analytic skills to pore over building plans to see if they provided access to people in wheelchairs. An avid swimmer, he championed Measure R in 2000, a ballot proposition that provided funds for a warm water pool at Berkeley High School. 

“I admire his independence,” said Wilcox. “He never asked for anything from anybody. He did for himself, just as he did for other people.”