NEWS- Not again: Second wheelchair pedestrian hit, ticketed

Deborah Hamlin was hit in a crosswalk, then ticketed.

Did you hear about the wheelchair pedestrian who was hit by a motorist in a Charlottesville crosswalk and then ticketed? Yeah? Well, how about the second one? Just one month after a disabled artist was struck by an Albemarle County police officer and then ticketed, a second wheelchair pedestrian is telling a tale of woe.

On Friday afternoon, December 7, Deborah Hamlin was leaving an appointment at UVA hospital and heading west down Jefferson Park Avenue in her non-motorized wheelchair. She stopped at the intersection of Lee Street and JPA and waited to cross. Born with cerebral palsy, Hamlin also has a visual processing disability. Though she is not blind, she says, the disability makes it difficult or impossible to make out pedestrian signals.

As she waited, she says, two trucks stopped at the red light on Lee facing JPA. The truck in the middle, she says, saw her and motioned for her to cross in front of it. As she started into the crosswalk, however, the light turned green, and the truck that had been closest to her started forward with Hamlin right in front of the grill.

"It was a nightmare," says Hamlin, 44, whose first thought was to try to get onto the ground so the truck's chassis would go over her and spare her life.

"I read about a guy who survived a train by getting to the lowest part and letting it roll over him," she says. Somehow she succeeded in pushing out of her wheelchair and heard voices screaming for the driver to stop.

"I landed on the ground," she says. "I was partly under the truck when my fingers hit the ground." Within moments, she says, "there was a whole team of people that were there and tried to save me."

Hamlin, who works as a tutor, was placed on a backboard by emergency personnel and transported the two blocks to the UVA Emergency Room. Like Mitchell, however, her ordeal was not over.

While she was being treated in the ER for an injured shoulder, she says, Charlottesville Police Officer Charles W. Gardner arrived bearing more bad news: a ticket. He told her she'd entered the crosswalk when the pedestrian signal read "don't walk" and was therefore at fault.

"I was in such pain, and they were asking me these stupid questions," says Hamlin, who says the officer seemed apologetic when he handed her the summons.

If readers feel a sense of déjà vu, it's no wonder. The Hook's December 6 cover story detailed artist Gerry Mitchell's experience being hit in a crosswalk on West Main Street. Mitchell was crossing with a green light when Albemarle County Officer Gregory Charles Davis turned left off Fourth Street onto West Main Street and hit the back of Mitchell's chair, pitching him onto the pavement. Hours later, an officer ticketed Mitchell in the ER telling him he hadn't pushed the button to trigger the "walk" signal.

Pedestrian activist Kevin Cox believes the police ticketed Mitchell solely to protect Albemarle police from future liability and has demanded accountability.

"I want to know who in the city," said Cox last week, "thinks it's more important to protect Albemarle County from a lawsuit than it is to protect a victim of an inattentive driver."

 He wonders now whether Hamlin's ticket was issued just to prove consistency, and notes that pedestrians are almost never cited in the city for failure to obey pedestrian signals. Only one such ticket was issued in 2006, and four have been issued this year, according to Lt. Dave Shifflett with Charlottesville Police.

Charlottesville Police Lt. L.A. Durrette, who responded to the Mitchell incident, says the decision to ticket Hamlin was "in no way" related to the decision to ticket Mitchell.

Still, despite Cox's doubts about recent police ticketing motives, Cox says there are important differences between the two cases. First, Cox believes the dump truck driver who struck Hamlin, Fred Lundmark of Ace's Trucking, had the right of way with a green light and a pedestrian in the crosswalk directly in front of him. Lundmark did not return the Hook's call.

Moreover, Cox believes Lundmark couldn't see Hamlin's chair, which was below his windshield. While he thinks police should have shown compassion by not ticketing Hamlin, Cox says he can understand the need to establish responsibility to protect the driver's insurance rates if the driver was not at fault. In Mitchell's case, Cox contends, the officer who hit him had violated the law that requires drivers to yield to pedestrians crossing the street they're turning onto.

Cox, whose wife is blind, says the biggest outrage in Hamlin's case is that a busy crosswalk near a hospital is ill-suited for pedestrians with disabilities.

"That intersection should be fixed to take into account that there are a huge number of people like [Hamlin] that use it," he says. Indeed, UVA has recently taken steps to protect pedestrians by embedding lights into the pavement at crosswalks along Emmet Street. Lights, however, aren't enough, says Cox, who believes more crosswalks should be equipped with audible walk signals for the visually impaired. Currently, only one downtown crosswalk– on East Market and Fourth Street NE– is equipped with sound.

Though her disabilities are lifelong, Hamlin says this is the first time she has been injured by a vehicle. While she relies entirely on the Jaunt transit service and cabs for long distance rides, for short distances her chair is her only choice. Getting around town is terrifying, she says, in part because her head is just four feet above the ground when she's in her chair, making it difficult for drivers to see her even when she has the right of way.

Hamlin's husband, Thomas Hamlin, says his wife is suffering from severe shoulder pain since the accident, and he's angry she was cited.

"I think it was very unfair," he says, "given the circumstances that she can't see very well."

Hamlin says pain and fear since the accident may further limit her mobility.

"I don't know if I'm going to be crossing streets anymore," she says.

Hamlin's case will be heard in Charlottesville District Court on January 22, 2008 at 9am.