Published Thursday, May 14, 2009

If the sidewalks of Florida are open to joyriders on Segway Personal Transporters, the sidewalks of St. Augustine Beach should be available to a disabled man in a golf cart, the man’s attorney argued Wednesday.

David Morris Steinheimer, disabled years ago in an automobile accident, needs the golf cart to get around, attorney Tom Cushman said in his appeal of a ruling last summer.

Steinheimer used to drive an American flag-draped golf cart around St. Augustine Beach. In the seat next to him was his companion Mandy Fugate.

She survived a severe brain injury when she was 11 years old. But she remains even more disabled than Steinheimer, Cushman told St. Johns County Circuit Judge J. Michael Traynor on Wednesday.

County Court Judge Charles Tinlin last July upheld the constitutionality of the law that bans Steinheimer from driving his cart on the sidewalks. Steinheimer had been given written warnings and citations for the offense.

A Florida statute prohibits all but “human-powered” devices from the state’s sidewalks, Cushman said. Not even motorized wheelchairs are permitted, he added.

However, the Legislature followed up the original statute with another that allows for one type of “motorized” vehicle: the Segway, a two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle with a top speed around 18 to 20 mph.

Information about the Segway “would give one the impression it was some type of handicap vehicle,” Cushman told the judge. “It’s not.

“Frankly, I don’t see any way a mobility-impaired individual could get aboard one.”

Steinheimer has a qualifying disability under the Americans with Disability Act, said Cushman. That entitles him to “reasonable accommodation” so he can get around and pursue “normal” life activities, the attorney added.

His client has tried and failed to get a driver’s license, said Cushman. That keeps him from driving the cart on the roadway.

The Sunshine Bus and buses provided by the Council on Aging don’t stop near Steinheimer’s home. And the closest bus stop is too far for the couple to walk to, Cushman explained.

“Because the state allows Segways, we know a reasonable accommodation could be made for Steinheimer’s golf cart,” he said.

His client is a victim of “disparate impact,” said Cushman.

“If a disabled person is impacted differently than the general population because of the same regulation, it’s a constitutional infringement of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” he said. “The general population has a right to ride Segways on the sidewalk. The City’s reaction is that disabled people can do that, too.

“Of course, they can’t.”

Steinheimer and Fugate “essentially have been confined to quarters” since last summer’s ruling, said Cushman.

“They’re totally dependent on her mother for transportation,” he said.

Arguing for the City of St. Augustine Beach, Amy Marie Vo insisted, “The use of the sidewalk is not a reasonable accommodation offered by the City.”

The statute should stay in place, and Steinheimer’s golf cart should stay off the sidewalks for four reasons, she said:

* The sidewalks are primarily intended for pedestrian traffic.

* The golf cart takes up nearly the entire width of the sidewalk.

* At a top speed of 18 mph, the cart could cause “considerable safety issues” for adults and children.

* If the City allowed Steinheimer to drive on the sidewalk, the same accommodation would have to be offered to all others who have a disability and cannot travel.

Steinheimer has several alternatives, Vo said.

He could drive his cart on the shoulder of the road; he could take public transportation; he could use an electric wheelchair; he could put a governor on the cart that would make the top speed 3 mph.

Cushman said no one had brought up the possibility of putting a governor on Steinheimer’s golf cart capping it at any reasonable, safe speed so he hadn’t raised it with his client.

“I can’t speak entirely for them, but right now they have nothing,” he said. “So a crumb would be better than nothing.”