Disabilities 'an afterthought' after wheelchair user's death - advocate

Rebecca Moore
Source: 1News

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero says "disabled people are an afterthought" in New Zealand following the "preventable" death of William Wiki Teoi in 2018.

Wiki Teoi died after he was hit by a car crossing a busy Auckland road, but four years on, there's still been no improvements made to the road where the 84-year-old wheelchair user was killed.

That's despite the Coroner finding the road was the primary factor contributing to his death.

Coroner Alexander Ho, who is backed by Tesoriero, is still pushing for changes to be made to prevent further deaths or injury.

On March 12, 2018, Wiki Teoi died at Middlemore Hospital.

The day before, he wanted to cross East Tamaki Road, a multi-lane road in Auckland's Ōtara, from the south to the north.

But with the signalled pedestrian crossing not accessible for him in his wheelchair, Wiki Teoi travelled a short distance down East Tamaki Road where there was a driveway allowing access onto the road.

In his findings, the Coroner believes Wiki Teoi's intentions were to cross the two lanes on the south side of the road, pass through a turning bay and then cross the three lanes on the north side of East Tamaki Road where he could remount the footpath by using car park entry access.

However, when Wiki Teoi reached the turning bay, both lanes on the north side had stationary cars. He started moving through the stationary traffic towards the first lane that was free flowing at the time.

As he exited the second lane he came into the path of an on-coming vehicle which collided with the front of his wheelchair.

The force of the impact knocked him to the ground and he sustained several rib fractures.

At Middlemore Hospital, Wiki Teoi suffered heart failure and died.

Dr Peng from Counties Manukau DHB noted in a report to the coroner that it was possible that his rib fractures had caused sufficient pain, triggering a fast heart rate which may have initially contributed to the heart failure.

He was an elderly man with severe underlying medical conditions.

Coroner Ho said he was satisfied Wiki Teoi's death "was from natural causes, albeit at least partially brought on or exacerbated by the collision".

He added that the death was preventable due to the layout of the road.

However, Auckland Transport (AT) conducted a Road Death Site Investigation Report following Wiki Teoi's death, where it said "the road was not the primary contributing factor to the crash".

Instead the agency identified two general road improvement recommendations - to investigate road user connectivity improvements, observing that there were no pram crossings or crossing facilities on the slip lane, and to renew the road markings in the area.

No improvements

The improvements were expected to be completed by January 2019. So far none have been made.

The Coroner says even on AT's best-case scenario, there will be no safe, signalled, mobility-accessible crossing from Preston Road across East Tamaki Road until late 2022 at the earliest – over four years after Wiki Teoi's death.

"This safety upgrade project is currently in the advanced development stage and we are expecting to update the community on progress in coming months," Auckland Transport spokeswoman Natalie Polley told 1News.

"This death was an absolute tragedy and a heart-breaking reminder of the importance of ensuring our roads and crossings are all safe for our communities.

"Safety across Auckland's road network is our absolute top priority and we take the safety of all road users seriously as part of our Vision Zero workstream. This is especially important when it comes to our most vulnerable road users – people outside vehicles – who are over-represented in tragedies such as this."

Polley said AT acknowledged Coroner Ho's findings, adding "we are committed to putting in place the safety improvements recommended".

However, Coroner Ho rejected AT's claims that the road was not the primary factor in his death.

"Mr Wiki Teoi's accident was preventable. I do not accept AT's conclusion that the road was not the primary contributing factor to the crash. It was," he said.

"The only reason why Mr Wiki Teoi was navigating through uncontrolled traffic was because AT did not provide a safe signalled crossing for mobility users to cross a busy arterial road.

"I recommend that AT undertake the necessary works to ensure that mobility and other carriage users have access to a safe and accessible signalled crossing across East Tamaki Road in the same manner that able-bodied pedestrians presently enjoy."

He went on to say: "The risk factors that led to Mr Wiki Teoi's accident are still present. I can do no more than reiterate, with the strongest possible force, the recommendation that I have made above.

"There has already been one unnecessary fatality as a result of mobility users being unable to access the signalled crossing. It is desirable that this accessibility issue be promptly remedied."

Coroner Ho also recommended that AT review all signalled crossings across its network to ensure that they comply with access requirements for mobility and other pedestrian carriage users, and if they are not compliant that there are safe alternative crossings for such users within a reasonable distance.

Profoundly disturbing

Tesoriero agrees.

"As the Coroner stated: sadly the accident was preventable," she told 1News.

"This says to me that yet again disabled people are an afterthought and at a personal level this is a profoundly disturbing thought to me, as I can only assume it must be for the family of Mr (Wiki) Teoi."

She said the road and footpath design in this incident failed to take the needs of wheelchair and mobility device users into consideration.

She was especially saddened to think of the anguish of Wiki Teoi's family, enduring four years of waiting for a safe, signalled mobility accessible crossing in the area.

"People in wheelchairs or using mobility devices are not uncommon, and as our population ages, we will see more people needing mobility aids to go about their daily business," Tesoriero says.

"Councils, and agencies that look after public infrastructure like roads and footpaths, must start prioritising accessibility in the design of public spaces, and retrofit those that are not accessible.

"The fact there still isn't a safe, signalled crossing is deeply concerning.

"This is as much an equity as it is a safety issue."