Terry Hoefer trained for about six months on the streets of Gig Harbor to compete in the 2012 Seattle Half Marathon and hoped to keep up his workout routine to prepare for a full marathon.
But he’s had to alter his training regimen after officials told him he might be violating the law.
The 20-year-old man, who lives on the outskirts of Gig Harbor, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. He uses his workouts – driving his motorized wheelchair on the side of the road – to help him build up the stomach and hand muscles necessary to sit up and operate the wheelchair for long distances. The training sessions helped him complete the 13.1-mile half-marathon in November.
He didn’t have any trouble until he was stopped by a Gig Harbor volunteer police officer along Burnham Drive Northwest the week before the race.
His mother, Vickie Hoefer, was running alongside him, as she always does, and his father, Kirk Hoefer, was driving behind them with his car’s flashers on and a sign on the back reading, “disabled runner.”
The officer told the family they couldn’t have the vehicle following Terry Hoefer’s wheelchair because it was obstructing traffic, Vickie Hoefer said.
That prompted her to call Gig Harbor city officials to learn what laws restrict wheelchair use on public roads.
She didn’t like what she was told.
Mayor Chuck Hunter gave her copies of state laws, including one that says medium-speed electric vehicles are allowed on certain roads, but the driver must be licensed.
Terry Hoefer, who is visually impaired and gets his mother’s help navigating the streets when they’re training, laughed about that one.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, how is that going to work?’ ” he said.
The conversation with Hunter pushed the Hoefers to investigate further.
“I said, ‘No, my son has the right to be on the road like anyone else,’ ” Vickie Hoefer said.
She called the State Patrol, Department of Licensing and the offices of her local representatives trying to clarify the rules.
“Basically, we can ride on the designated bike lanes all over, but we can’t ride on a street that doesn’t have a white line,” she said she learned this month.
The Hoefers have modified their routes to follow the law and stopped having a car follow them. She said Pierce County helped make a local sidewalk wheelchair-accessible, which means they can still run along Burnham Drive Northwest to the local Starbucks, one of their favorite outings.
They’ve stopped using another route, to St. Anthony Hospital, because it doesn’t have a legal shoulder or bike lane.
Terry Hoefer has spent a lot of time sick at St. Anthony, and it was fun to see him healthy there on their runs, his mom said.
Gig Harbor traffic officer Mike Allen said it comes down to whether the duo is obstructing or impeding traffic.
“It’s just like anybody walking down the side of the road,” Allen said. “If you don’t have a sidewalk to be on, then, yeah, you’re going to have to be on the side of the road.”
Allen wasn’t familiar with the officer who stopped the Hoefers last month but said he would likely handle the situation the same way: with a verbal warning instead of a citation.
“Officers have discretion,” Allen said. “It’s not like we’re going to cite this person no matter what. Can they be cited if they’re obstructing or impeding traffic? Yes.”
When it comes to licensing requirements, wheelchairs aren’t classified as medium-speed vehicles, and therefore don’t require licenses to drive on streets the way Hoefer does, he said.
Hunter said the city is willing to compromise.
“I don’t know if it’s safe, but if it’s legal for them to do, I don’t think the city of Gig Harbor has a problem with it,” he said. “We’re just interested in people being safe, and we’d hate like heck to see somebody get hurt.”
Both Hunter and Allen suggested safer alternatives to the roads, such as a track or trail, but Terry Hoefer said there aren’t any that are long enough, especially since his goal is to finish a full marathon. When he started, he could go one block with his chair.
“We can’t do 26 miles on the track,” he said. “It would get boring.”
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268