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Let it ride


Tracy Senat
Credit: Mark Hancock

In 2002, she lost her sight and forfeited her driving privileges.

Since then, she’s been relying on mass transit and other social service agencies for transportation.

But each of them has limitations, which means Webster and others in her situation can’t get up and go at a moment’s notice.

“It’s a big adjustment from running to your car and going to the store or the movie whenever you want, to making plans days in advance [for a ride],” she said.

Webster has relied on friends and family, but she admits even that takes its toll.

That’s why she was overjoyed when she heard about Independent Transportation Network America, a nonprofit volunteer program that will soon serve Oklahoma City’s elderly, vision-impaired and others who are unable to drive.

ITNAmerica operates in 27 U.S. cities — including Kansas City, Mo.; Boston; Cincinnati and San Diego — and recently recorded its 500,000th ride since its inception in 2004.

There is no specific timetable for the start of the OKC program, said Tracy Senat, associate director of the Oklahoma County Medical Society (OCMS), which supports ITNAmerica.

The transportation program offers a 24/7, low-cost transportation service through a network of volunteer drivers. Over the past nine years, ITNAmerica drivers nationwide have recorded 2.3 million miles.

There are no restrictions on where riders can go. Destination
spots could include restaurants, medical appointments, grocery shopping,
exercise, a visit with friends or even a movie.

because you can’t drive doesn’t mean you can’t have a full life,” Senat
said. “This serves as an alternative and to fill some gaps for what’s
out there and not out there. This is a membership organization, not a
taxi service.”

Living with dignity
transit buses end their routes at 6 p.m. on weekdays and do not operate
on Sunday. When public transportation and family and friends are not
available, Webster sometimes turns to cabs, which can be expensive.

I went to a meeting at the Library for the Blind in downtown Oklahoma
City, and I live in far northwest part of town. It cost me $60 to go
there and come back,” she said.

“You have to be able to afford to get where you want to go or you’re just a shut-in in your home.”

Senat said the ITNAmerica program allows senior citizens to continue their lives with dignity.

“The passengers sit in the front seat with the driver,” she said.

“This allows people to age with grace. They shouldn’t have to beg for rides.”

Mark Mellow, president of the ITN Central Oklahoma board of directors,
said the area’s medical community supports the program.

have an interest in this because doctors believe patients have better
outcomes when they keep their medical appointments,” he told Oklahoma
City Council members last month. “You take away the keys from somebody
in this city, and you’re basically confining them to their house.”

Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer praised the program’s mission.

“It’s a terrific alternative for seniors whose driving has become more difficult,” she said.

Kentucky experience
Dake, director of the ITN affiliate in Lexington, Ky., said the agency
started there in 2008 and is on schedule to hit the 25,000-ride mark
sometime this month.

Meg Salyer
Credit: Shannon Cornman

“We don’t even have to advertise anymore. It’s mostly word of mouth,” she said. “It really fills a niche in this community.”

40 percent of Lexington’s riders are regular customers. The
transportation fees there include a $3 pickup fee and $1.50 per mile.

“It’s about 40-percent cheaper than a taxi ride,” Dake said.

biggest challenge in Lexington has been keeping enough drivers to
accommodate the increasing number of riders. “You can scale your program
to the population as long as you have enough drivers,” Dake said. “I
think I’ve trained 80, maybe more, people as drivers, but not everyone
wants to do it all the time.”

Before OKC’s ITN
affiliate can begin offering rides, some organizational plans must be
completed, including the hiring of an executive director and the
establishment of fares riders will pay.

The local affiliate of ITNAmerica also is seeking a tax-exempt status in order to raise more operational funds.

Criminal and driving background checks will be conducted on the volunteer drivers, who will use their own vehicles.

Potential riders or drivers interested in the program can call 702- 0500.

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