Ordinance aids disabled drivers at gas pump
TAMPA - Kevin Poindexter pulled the red 2000 Chrysler Town & Country minivan up to pump 7 at the Mobil gas station on Busch Boulevard and 46th Street and began what for him is an ordeal. A wheelchair user, he hit a lever in the van that opens the sliding side door and another that lowers a ramp. He moved out of the drivers seat, into the chair and rolled down the ramp, which extends about five feet from the van. "I hope no one runs over my ramp," he said. "I had that happen before when someone pulled up right behind me, then tried to drive around me instead of waiting." Poindexter wheeled into the store, up to the attendant and paid for gas.As he did, a man in a pickup with a long utility trailer pulled up to the pump behind Poindexter. After a few minutes in the store, Poindexter wheeled back and began pumping, all the while, he said, thinking back to last year when an impatient driver destroyed his ramp. Poindexter, a Navy veteran, survived his service to the country intact. But he has been confined to a wheelchair since 1997 after being shot in the back as someone tried to carjack him in Chicago while he was on leave. For most people, filling up the gas tank is no big deal. Pull up to the pump, get out, pay, gas up and go. But for Poindexter and other disabled drivers, a trip to the gas station is inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst. Some relief arrived Jan. 1 for the more than 63,000 drivers in Hillsborough County who, like Poindexter, have permanent handicap stickers for their vehicles. Thanks to an effort by Paralyzed Veterans Of America — of which Poindexter is a member — and County Commissioner Sandy Murman, Hillsborough County now requires gas stations to provide a number at the pump that handicapped motorists can call to get an attendant to come out and pump gas for them. Murman and representatives of other disability groups say the ordinance appears to be the first of its kind in the nation. Though federal law requires stations with two or more attendants to pump gas for handicapped motorists, the law does not specify how stations should comply. Some have call buttons. But those are often placed so high that someone in a wheelchair can't reach them, Murman said. Some stations do nothing at all, she said, and handicapped drivers are often forced to resort to "honking, waiving their handicapped cards trying to get attention." That often doesn't work. "The new ordinance fills in a big gap in the federal law," she said. Murman, whose brother Richard Murman had Down syndrome and passed away a few years ago in a group home at age 56, is a supporter of efforts to help people with disabilities. She said she opted to back the gas pumping assistance ordinance after hearing from Sandy Sroka, the county's Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, who told her of the problems handicapped motorists experience. The ordinance is the brainchild of Ben Ritter, government relations director for the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. He said he wanted an equitable solution, not just for veterans, but for all handicapped drivers. Nearly 7 percent of the county's 940,000 licensed motorists have a permanent handicap sticker, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. A 70-year-old retired Marine sergeant who was paralyzed from the chest down after a post-service surgery went awry, Ritter said the idea came to him about four years ago after being unable to reach a call button at a gas station. "My background is in sales and marketing, said Ritter, a real estate broker. "Sometimes, the common-sense, easiest solutions work best." Ritter's solution was to require stations to display placards at the pumps carrying the International Symbol of Accessibility logo — the white wheel chair on a blue background — with a number to call to get an attendant, as federal law requires. "It is easy and inexpensive," Ritter said. Mike Aldred, sales manager for J.H. Williams Oil, likes the idea. "It is easy to implement, not costly, and a simple plan," Aldred said. About 18 months ago, Ritter contacted the company and they agreed to test the program at their Citgo station at 19th Street and Adamo Drive. Aldred said the company spent about $100 on the placards and gets about four or five requests a week. "It was simple. It worked and is really something that needs to be done everywhere," said Aldred. The Hillsborough ordinance has no penalty provision, said Murman. "If we find there is a problem complying, we may come back and address that later," she said. After pumping his gas, wheeling back into his van, hopping back into the driver's seat and hitting the levers that roll up the ramp and shut the side door, Kevin Poindexter said he appreciates the new rule. "The gas pumping ordinance will be very helpful," Poindexter said.
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