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Volunteers take the driver’s seat

Resource type: News

USA Today |

When Virginia James decided she was too old to drive, the 92-year-old resident of Portland, Maine, looked for a new way to get around. She came across the Independent Transportation Network (ITN), which began in Portland in 1995. It brings together volunteer drivers, donated cars and computerized scheduling to give rides for about $8. The program, one of more than 600 nationwide for seniors, is moving into other U.S. cities. Transportation analysts say such programs will be vital for people in the nation’s growing senior population to stay mobile as they outlive their ability to drive safely. “The average man will outlive his driving ability by six years, the average woman by 10 years,” says Rose Sheridan of the American Public Transport Association, a Washington-based group that represents public transit systems. “In a lot of ways, we are coming to a critical area in providing more services for seniors, and there is no one way that you provide these services.” Though public transportation systems are helping seniors by making buses easier to access, announcing stops and providing more personal assistance, volunteer drivers can represent a key transportation link for many seniors, particularly seniors who live in towns that don’t have large transit systems. “Public transportation was not designed to provide this kind of assistance and support,” says Helen Kerschner of the Beverly Foundation, a Pasadena, Calif.-based group that promotes research and programs to help seniors get around. “Volunteer drivers are committed and more flexible.” James says the ITN drivers in Portland have become like family. And because she can schedule her rides whenever she wants, she still feels as if she is in the driver’s seat. “It’s very important to me that I am able to care for myself at 92 and not bother my children,” she says. “They have their lives.” She says giving up her car was one of the most difficult things she has done, but she knows it was the right decision. “I realized that I should not be on the road,” she says today, more than 10 years after her eyesight became too diminished to allow her to drive. “I was beginning to worry that I would hurt somebody or myself, and I decided I had to stop.” Safety analysts say at least 600,000 elderly people give up their car keys each year. With medical advancements helping people live longer, analysts say, those numbers will continue to grow. From now until 2030, U.S. Census projections show, the number of people 85 and older will grow 73%, to 9.6 million. “We’re asking an awful lot of our citizens who have been driving for (generations) to start becoming public-transit users – if there is public transportation in their community,” says Elinor Ginzler, AARP’s director of livable communities. The ITN program was started in Portland by Katherine Freund, whose 3-year-old son, Ryan, was run over in 1988 by an 84-year-old man who thought he had struck a dog. Ryan recovered from his injuries, but the episode led Freund to realize that impaired elderly drivers were an increasing problem. In 1995 she started ITN, which also allows adult children to bank credits for their own volunteer driving, turning that time into currency for rides for their parents, other needy seniors or themselves in the future. A computer keeps track of the cars, money, volunteers and ride requests. The program has expanded to Charleston, S.C., Orlando and Santa Monica, Calif. Each of the four cities involved sets its own rates; in Portland, the minimum fee is $6 and the average is $8. Seniors can get a lot of rides by donating a car, which Freund calls their “biggest transportation asset.” There are plans to launch the service in Chicago; the Davenport, Iowa, area; Springfield, Mass.; Lexington, Ky., and St. Louis. People who are interested in developing a network in their town can call ITNAmerica at (207) 857-9001. “This is about the dignity of the older people,” Freund says, “and them not feeling indebted or like they are asking for a favor.” James is glad to see the service grow: “They are always there when I need them.” Contributing: Anthony DeBarros

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Independent Transportation Network, ITN