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Alternative transportation program helps older drivers get around safely

Consumer Reports News: August 29, 2012 01:08 PM

After her 3-year-old son was run over and seriously injured by an older driver, Katherine Freund decided that instead of blaming the driver, she would direct her anger at the system for not providing viable alternatives for seniors when their driving skills decline. And she came up with a solution.

Freund set out on a mission to make a change. She spent years researching what older drivers need, what they want, and how to make it sustainable and affordable. "If I was going to solve the safety and mobility problem, I needed to create a consumer oriented, high-quality transportation service that used automobiles that relied on private pay," says Freund. What she came up with is a community ride share program, called >ITN America, which she founded in 1995. It is currently available in 20 locations around the country.

As baby boomers age and the population shifts in the next 18 years, there is increased concern over the safety of older drivers and how to maintain their mobility. Buses and public transportation are options in urban areas, but those who live in suburban or rural locations need to continue to rely on vehicles whether they drive them or not.

Freund determined that people who own vehicles spend about 20 percent of their household income on transportation, such as gas, tolls, and vehicle maintenance, so she created a car trade program at ITN to allow people to trade in their vehicles and use that money towards credits for rides.

Eighty-seven-year-old Claire Gnepp uses ITN in Sarasota, Florida, after she failed a driving assessment test at a local hospital. Her son Steven says his mother "got her independence back and she can now accept invitations to people's houses, which she wasn't doing before."

Rides can be scheduled beforehand and run 24 hours a day, so seniors can use the service for doctor appointments, shopping, or even social events.

Evelyn, 83, and Cliff Orman, 87, use ITN in Portland, Maine. Evelyn says she has met great people and "they don't make you feel old." Many of the drivers are early retirees who earn credits for transporting others that can be used when they need the service themselves down the road.

Freund's goal is to get ITN to scale faster and be available in all communities, but funding is a challenge. She compares it to the money that has been invested in advancing medical care. "We put billions into cancer research, but the transportation system that gets people to [treatment] stopped progressing around the Model T."

She says public transportation is like an analog system. The future of mobility will be what she calls "shared private capacity," which is more like the Internet where people will share information on where they need to go and make matches to help each other out.

For now, the best thing for families to do is plan for the when loved ones will no longer be able to safely drive, and consider the appropriate housing and transportation options in advance. Services like ITN can help keep older adults safe and healthy well into their Golden Years.

For more on the risks of teens and older drivers, see our report on "Risky Drivers."

Liza Barth

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