Because of failing eyesight, Mary Alice Crabb had to give up driving almost a decade ago. So when she lost her husband four years ago, she also lost her only transportation.
She relied on friends at first but soon felt she was a burden. Her situation improved, however, when she joined Independent Transportation Network (ITN), a nonprofit program that lets seniors trade in their cars for rides.
"I call them up, and say, 'I need a mall fix,' " she says, laughing, as driver Beth Paulsen- Olmstead takes her from a hair salon to a Portland-area mall. "I'd be lost without them."
With 78 million baby boomers nearing retirement, local and state leaders are scrambling to devise transportation alternatives for seniors. The goal? Get them off the road when they no longer should drive, yet keep them integrated in their communities.
How old is too old to drive? Debate intensifies after tragedies, like the one in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2003 when an 86-year-old plowed into a busy farmers' market, killing 10 people.
But, as life expectancies grow, so does the need to help seniors keep their routines - from stocking the fridge to seeing friends.
"Transportation is the No. 1 issue you hear going around to communities where seniors live," says Greg Olsen, legislative and policy director in the office of New York Rep. Steven Englebright, especially as society pushes back against institutional care. "To keep seniors in their homes and in their communities it takes housing and case management and other services," says Mr. Olsen. "The cornerstone of all of that is transportation."
Programs across the country offer seniors incentives to give up their keys. Perhaps the most effective is the ITN model, which, because of its flexibility and availability to all income levels, is quickly expanding nationwide.
The service, which began in Portland in 1995, provided more than 15,200 rides there last year with four cars, operated by 50 volunteers and six paid part-time drivers. Seniors can trade in their cars to the program and use the money to pay for rides, which average about $8. Family and friends can add to their accounts by donating time as volunteers, or by donating cars or cash. The service is available 24/7.
Katherine Freund, who founded the program as an outgrowth of her graduate school project, says the key is that it uses no taxpayer money. Even if society wants all seniors to be entitled to transportation, she says, there is not enough money to meet that goal. That is how she came up with the model of a car trade-in.
"I thought, 'here is all this equity depreciating in driveways from coast to coast,' " she says.
Ms. Freund says she has been contacted by thousands of communities, policymakers, and the adult children of seniors worried about their parents on the road.
Last year, four communities launched ITN affiliates: Mercer County, N.J., Santa Monica, Calif., Orlando, Fla., and Charleston, S.C. State legislatures, including those in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York, are moving to create similar programs.
"It always made sense to me that a volunteer transportation system is the way to go," says Olsen, who expects New York to have a bill shortly.
Not all seniors pose risks on the road, of course, but drivers 75 and older do have higher crash rates per mile than all groups except 16-to-18- year-olds. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that the annual number of fatal crashes caused by older drivers is expected to double by 2030.
"People are reluctant to say they are having problems driving," says Freund, whose son - now recovered - was run over by an elderly driver in 1988. "This is going to keep hurting people until we figure out how to solve it."
According to the National Institute on Aging, more than 600,000 people age 70 or older stop driving each year. And The Surface Transportation Policy Project says that more than half of nondrivers aged 65 and older stay home on any given day because they have no transportation alternatives.
Ms. Crabb calls ITN at least once a week, not just to take her to the places she needs to go, but to maintain some semblance of the life she led before her husband died, she says. Not relying on charity or friends or anyone else is important to her. "I'm too independent to impose on anyone," she says. "I like my own way of doing things."