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Disabled Sue Caltrans Over Dangerous Highways

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday August 29, 2006

Whenever Mark Hendrix, who lives near Telegraph Avenue and uses a wheelchair to get around, wants to go down Ashby Avenue to browse at Urban Ore on Seventh Street, he takes the bus.  

Others who use wheelchairs or who have low vision should do the same, Hendrix counsels, calling attention to the multiple hazards for the disabled as they walk or roll down Ashby. 

Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates has taken the issue a step further by filing a lawsuit last week in United States Federal Court, Northern District of California under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The suit is aimed at the California Department of Transportation, better known as Caltrans, which is responsible for Ashby, State Highway 13, San Pablo Avenue, State Highway 123, and other streets around the state that are state highways.  

Many of these highways are fraught with danger for the disabled, says the class action lawsuit, which names Dmitiri Belser of Berkeley and Ben Rockwell of Southern California as plaintiffs, suing Caltrans in the name of all disabled people who use California state highways and park-and-ride facilities. 

In a phone interview Monday, Belser, chair of the Commission on Disability and executive director of Center for Accessible Technology, pointed to the lack of “detectable warnings” for visually-impaired persons. Belser has some vision, but is legally blind.  

“For blind people, curbs are important,” Belser said. They delineate the sidewalk from the street. Curb cuts can be dangerous to visually impaired people. 

The solution is the bright yellow plates that warn Belser that he’s at a curb cut and about to go into a street. The raised dots on the plates indicate to people with little or no vision that they are approaching the street. 

Many crossings on Ashby are not painted as crosswalks. No crosswalk traverses the intersection of Ashby and Stanton Street, near the South Berkeley Senior Center, for example. 

Belser pointed out that the number of hazards for disabled people on Ashby near the senior center is particularly egregious, given that many seniors gradually lose their sight and mobility and need especially good sidewalk access—without large cracks, poles, and cars blocking the sidewalk. 

Before filing the lawsuit, DRA attorney Mary-Lee Kimber said she had tried to work with Caltrans. 

“They were uncooperative,” she said. “We sent a letter saying what the problem is and asking for a meeting—they refused. We felt forced into this.” 

In response to quer-ies, David Anderson, Caltrans’ spokesperson, sent an email to the Daily Planet saying its legal division “has not been served with the lawsuit at this time, and therefore, has not had an opportunity to review it. It is the Department’s long-standing policy not to comment on any pending lawsuit.” 

Kimber noted additional problems on Ash-by. “At some points because of bus signs or light poles, the width is too small for a wheelchair,” Kimber said, noting that there are places where there is “uneven, crumbled pave-ment.” 

For example, down near Seventh Street, an apparently new sidewalk ends in dirt, weeds and trash at the former Santa Fe railroad crossing. 

City Councilmember Dona Spring, who uses a wheelchair, said some of the curb cuts on San Pablo Avenue are extremely dangerous. “They are too narrow and too steep for most electric wheelchairs,” she said. 

And Kimber pointed out that with a lot of construction on San Pablo, there is no warning that there is no sidewalk access ahead. 

Thoughts of many of the people interviewed for this story were with the two disabled people killed on Ashby Avenue. In 1999 Sharon Spencer was struck by a car as she was crossing Ashby at Piedmont Avenue in her wheelchair and died from her injuries a month after the accident.  

Fred Lupke was struck and killed while riding in his wheelchair in the street on the north side of Ashby Avenue between Martin Luther King Way and Ellis Street in order to avoid hazards on the sidewalk. 

“We had to wait until someone got killed to get Santa Rosa lights,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, speaking of the flashing lights activated by pedestrians and wheelchair users, installed at Ashby and Piedmont after Spencer’s death.  

“The city paid for the Santa Rosa lights,” Spring said. “Caltrans has been extra stingy.”  

Spring recalled the state of the sidewalk that Lupke avoided by using the street. “That stretch of Ashby on the north side of the street to the senior center was in terrible condition. It was impassible. There was a big hole in the sidewalk.” 

Hendrix, who said that the sidewalk has since been repaired, recalled that in addition to other problems the sidewalk near where Lupke was out in the street slanted downward toward the street and was difficult for people using wheelchairs to manipulate. 

“I always knew it would take a lawsuit to make Caltrans responsive,” Spring said. “It will help every pedestrian.” 




The disabled community would like raised yellow dots like these at Ninth Street and Ashby Avenue at every intersection. Photograph by Judith Scherr.