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Network Connects Riders with Drivers in Maine

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The Independent Transportation Network is a non-profit organization based in Maine that connects volunteer drivers with citizens who can no longer take the wheel, especially older drivers too infirm to drive themselves. The program is being established in other communities around the country.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Nearly 20 million licensed drivers in this country are 70 or older. Many experts worry about that. Some states already screen seniors to make sure they are still capable drivers.

Susan Sharon prepared this report on one community that's helping older drivers get out from behind the wheel and still get around.

SUSAN SHARON reporting:

Like many women her age, 85-year-old Hazel Blanchard is a widow. She didn't learn how to drive until she was in her fifties. Her husband had died and she had no other way to get around. Blanchard says she picked up the skill quickly, but in recent years she says she grew less confident behind the wheel. So Blanchard did something many of her peers consider courageous. She gave up her car.

Ms. HAZEL BLANCHARD: I just decided I didn't want to drive anymore, and I gave it to my daughter-in-law.

SHARON: As a volunteer drives Blanchard through the countryside to her suburban home, Blanchard explains the decision to give up her car didn't leave her stranded the way some of her friends feared. She signed up for a non-profit program called the Independent Transportation Network. Whenever she wants to visit friends, go shopping, or get to medical appointments, she makes a phone call and a volunteer driver comes and picks her up. Each daytime ride costs three dollars plus mileage.

BLANCHARD: They send you a bill, you know, and then you send the money for the previous month. So it works out just fine.

SHARON: Other customers sell the cars they no longer drive, and use the profits to set up personal transportation accounts. ITN will even help them find the best prices for their cars. And it will also connect them with other modes of transportation: buses, trains, and airplanes if they need rides out of town.

From their office building in an old mill building in downtown Westbrook, Maine, dispatchers keep track of transportation requests on a computer, and communicate with volunteers over a two-way radio. Now 11 years old, ITN serves about a thousand members in 13 towns. To join a person needs to be at least 65 or have some sort of visual impairment.

Kathy Fruend is the program's founder.

Ms. KATHY FRUEND (Founder, Independent Transportation Network): Older people don't have a way to get around when they can't drive, and so they're driving when they shouldn't.

SHARON: No one knows this any better than Fruend. Nearly 20 years ago, she watched in horror as her three-year-old son was run over by an 84 year old man. The man had simply been driving around the corner to fill a prescription for his wife.

Ms. FREUND: I always knew that the older man who drove the car was as much a victim as my son. Nobody wants to do anything like that, nobody.

SHARON: Freund's son survived, and she devoted herself to working on older driver issues. At first, she concentrated on licensing and screening. She still thinks that's important. But she says she realized that crashes involving seniors are just a symptom of a mobility problem.

Ms. FREUND: You know, there are a million Americans a year who stop driving, and those people are trapped in their houses if they don't have an option. Very few trips are actually taken on public transit, fewer than two percent of trips. The trips are in cars. So you know, that just told me that we needed a car solution.

SHARON: Freund's dream has always been to make ITN a national model. And it's starting to come true. This month, Maine's Senator Susan Collins will introduce legislation to replicate the program. And later this year, Santa Monica, California, Charleston, South Carolina, Princeton, New Jersey, and Orlando, Florida, are expected to become part of a National Independent Transportation Network.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Portland, Maine.

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