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5 Questions for Katherine Freund

An advocate explains how the transportation needs of older adults can be met if safe drivers of all ages would share a ride

Katherine Freund, founder of ITN America

Photo courtesy iTNAmerica

Katherine Freund, founder and president of iTNAmerica.


On average, men in the United States outlive their ability to drive by seven years. Women, who generally live longer than men, survive an additional decade beyond their driving years.

Since the majority of communities nationwide are not walkable and do not have comprehensive public transit options, being a nondriver can be a limiting, isolating and even health-endangering experience.

Case in point: More than 3 million Americans miss or delay medical appointments every year because they lack a ride to the doctor.

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As a young mother in 1988, Katherine Freund learned firsthand that the transportation problems faced by older adults can have a direct impact on people of any age, including her then-toddler son, who was run over and seriously injured by an 84-year-old driver who didn't even realize he had nearly killed a child. (After years of extensive care the little boy did recover and is now a successful 30-year-old man.)

The tragedy inspired Freund to address the underlying cause of the incident, which stemmed in large part from the fact that, in the absence of other ways to get around, some older adults may continue to drive beyond their abilities to safely do so.

"Since three out of four older Americans live in rural and suburban communities that lack the density for traditional mass transit, most have limited transportation options that could otherwise help keep them safe and mobile," Freund, who is the founder and president of iTNAmerica, recently wrote in a blog post for Forbes. "Across this country, millions of people are struggling with this unmet need. There is hardly an American family, business or community member whose lives, safety or wallet has not been affected. Adult children miss work to drive a parent to health care; symphony orchestras lose season ticket holders who can’t drive at night; pharmacy chains lose older customers who once browsed for greeting cards and sugar-free candies while filling prescriptions; and churches face shrinking attendance."

With the boomer generation now in or entering their older years, Freund and iTNAmerica (as well as AARP and even the U.S. Department of Transportation) are stepping up efforts to shine a spotlight on the need for age-friendlier transportation solutions and options.

1.The iTN in iTNAmerica stands for Independent Transportation Network. Explain what the network is  — why it's needed, how it began and how it and the Rides in Sight service works.

ITNAmerica is a nonprofit transportation service that re-creates the comfort and convenience of private automobile ownership by offering door-through-door, arm-through-arm rides to older adults for any purpose, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

People who use the service become members and open a "Personal Transportation Account," which they can fund in a number of ways to pay for their rides. For instance, with our CarTrade program, a person can trade in their car when they no longer drive and receive transportation credits to "pay" for their iTN rides. Or someone can volunteer as a driver and store their transportation credits for their own future needs. ITNAmerica provides dignified transportation services to members through more than two-dozen iTN affiliates nationwide.

Rides in Sight is iTNAmerica’s toll-free hotline (855-607-4337) and searchable online database for senior transportation of any kind, anywhere in the United States.

Trained operators help locate local transportation resources for older adults or people with visual impairments. Whatever someone's needs — escorted service, a chair lift, a private car or public transportation options — Rides in Sight operators can help find the best local options. There are 15,000 transportation options in the Rides in Sight database.

2. In 2015, iTNAmerica launched two initiatives. The first was the #sharearide social media challenge. The second was called the Storybook Tour. Describe these two efforts.

The year 2015 [marked] the 20th anniversary of the first iTN ride in Portland, Maine. To celebrate and help raise awareness of the central role mobility plays in people's lives, [we] declared 2015 "the year to give an older person a ride."

It's so hard for someone who needs a ride to ask for it, even when not asking means missing a lot of life. We want drivers to look around and see who needs a lift, to offer that ride and — as part of the #sharearide campaign — to post a picture and maybe a story on iTNAmerica's Facebook page or their preferred social media platform.

The transportation capacity to meet the mobility needs of older Americans already exists through the empty seats in the cars we drive every day.

The Storybook Tour [was] a 60-day coast-to-coast road trip to meet people and share the stories of how mobility issues have changed their lives. I got involved in senior transportation because someone in my family had an accident involving an older driver — that's my story. But my story is one of millions of stories, because this issue — transportation for older people — touches every family in the nation.

We [kicked off] off the Storybook Tour in Portland, Maine, on June 16, 2015, which is 20 years to the day from the first Independent Transportation Network ride. Stories make the importance of safe senior mobility real, which hopefully inspire people in communities across America to be part of the solution. Anyone who has a story to tell can contact us through storybooktour.org

Here are a few examples of stories we've gathered at iTN:

  • A retired psychologist used iTN rides so she could volunteer to read to people who are blind. She generally recited poetry for them and also read aloud the works of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

  • A champion rower used iTN to get to his boat on the river, where he loved to get behind the oars and row, even though he hadn't been able to drive safely for many years.

  • A member in Cincinnati has told us she's once again able to buy ice cream when she goes shopping because, since she now has an iTN ride, she can arrive home from the market before it melts.

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Image courtesy iTNMontereyCounty

A passenger gets a helping hand from Nancy Budd, the executive director of iTNMontereyCounty.

3. Let's say a driver does decide to "share a ride" with an older person who is in need of transportation. What does that driver need to do or know in order to be protected from liability, in case of an accident or another problem? Also, what does an older adult, or his or her caregiver if there is one, need to consider when accepting the assistance of a helpful driver or transportation program?

We have all become so accustomed to automobiles that we forget there is a risk. Many people are concerned about their liability when it comes to using their car to volunteer. That's why iTNAmerica has worked to educate policy makers in many states about a very successful law that was passed in Maine in 1995. That law (LD 847, SP 309) prohibits an insurance company from unfairly or unreasonably increasing a volunteer's insurance premium simply because they use their car to drive others. The Maine law has served as a model in many states, such as Florida and Illinois, and is a great example of public policy that removes a barrier so people can help one another.

As a driver or as a passenger, it's always important to use good judgment. Drivers should absolutely check with their insurance company to be sure the insurer will cover any liabilities associated with driving passengers. People who are passengers (and/or are the caregivers of passengers) should use prudence and their own sound judgment when accepting a ride.

Another alternative for a person who wants to help is to contact their local iTN affiliate and become a volunteer driver. ITN riders can be assured that their driver has undergone extensive background and safe-driving record checks.

Anyone who participates in the #sharearide challenge or simply offers another person a ride does so at their own risk. ITNAmerica's #sharearide social media challenge adheres to the policies, rules and procedures of our social media hosts, and we trust that participants will do so as well — and that they will respect the privacy and other rights of their passengers before posting information about or photographs of the people they assist.

Our challenge is really about raising awareness and tapping the share economy. We want to inspire every car owner to look beyond their own destination to see who they can help with a ride. Who, within their network or the community-at-large, could enhance that ride with even more purpose?

We each have the opportunity to change someone's life for the better. By asking the question within our network of friends, acquaintances and colleagues, people can be surprised by how few degrees of separation exist between themselves and an older person in need of a ride.

4. How are the transportation problems faced by older adults consistent nationwide and how are they geographically different?

Everyone knows that all communities are different, but each also has some fundamental things in common. A majority of communities across America depend on private automobiles for transportation, and age affects driving.

Night driving is typically the first compromise, followed by limiting any or all of certain driving situations, such as merging onto an interstate; driving in snow, rain or daytime glare; and navigating unfamiliar neighborhoods, construction zones, rush hours, parking garages and intersections that have unprotected left turns.

When people limit or stop driving, alternatives become important. In urban areas where there are more transit services, there are more options. But the same physical changes that make driving difficult also make using mass transit a challenge — whether it's difficulty carrying packages, waiting in the cold or heat for a bus to arrive, or simply feeling weak because of a health issue. The most popular option for nondrivers is walking and rides with family and friends, but in rural communities these may be the only choices.

In our 20 years of working on senior mobility issues at ITN, we've learned that dignified transportation in personal automobiles is a critical success factor in the senior mobility equation. Having access to car-based transportation plays an important transitional role for people who are faced with the difficult decision of giving up their car keys.

5. If you had the resources and ability to fully implement the policies or programs that are necessary for addressing the transportation problems of older adults, what would those solutions and that future look like?

We believe the answer to the transportation needs of older people is parked in driveways from coast to coast. All we need to do is share a ride. Today, for the first time, we have the technical capability to access those empty seats and match drivers with people who need a ride. We can create a virtual marketplace based on shared rides and shared vehicles. So, technology is a major piece of the solution in which I would invest right away. 

Another piece is for public policies to remove barriers that prevent people from taking care of themselves. For example, every state should have policies that protect volunteer drivers from unreasonable increases in their insurance if they want to volunteer to drive older people.

Every state should remove policy barriers to people trading in their cars to pay for their own rides. And every city and town should revise their livery laws to allow nonprofit organizations to recover some of the costs involved in providing transportation services by charging a fare for a ride that is delivered by a volunteer driver. Public transportation and for-profit services such as taxi cabs or Uber or Lyft will not meet the need alone. Community-based and community-supported nonprofit services are an essential part of the mix.

Most Americans already spend about 20 percent of their household income on transportation. While government can help with transportation, it can never afford to provide the level of mobility that people enjoy as private automobile owners and drivers. It's important for everyone to think about and plan for their own future mobility.

Melissa Stanton is an advisor for AARP Livable Communities and editor of AARP.org/livable.

Published March 2015. Updated July 2016


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