- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

PAINTSVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Stricken with arthritis, Connie Haller gave up strolling the streets of this mountain town. But when the 78-year-old learned that the government would buy her a motorized scooter, she gladly accepted. And so did her elderly friends. And their friends. And their friends.

Now, this town of 4,000 in Kentucky’s coalfields is seemingly overrun with scooter riders.

Scores of people riding scooters and motorized wheelchairs plod along busy streets to the Wal-Mart, restaurants and beauty salons. Motorists complain that the riders snarl traffic, and the riders fret about the dangers of sharing the asphalt with cars and trucks.

Mayor Doug Pugh says the government helped create the problem and should help pay for the sidewalks that would solve it.

“It would be a lot safer,” Mr. Pugh said. “These aren’t like little motorcycles — they shouldn’t have to be on the roads.”

Paintsville officials are not exactly sure how many people in town have scooters. Mrs. Haller said she knows of at least 50 in her apartment building alone.

“It’s been a lifesaver for me, and for many others,” she said. “We ride our buggies everywhere.”

This Appalachian region about 60 miles south of Huntington, W.Va., has long had high numbers of disabled residents, many of whom worked in the mining and logging industries.

Paintsville’s plight also reflects a government-subsidized explosion in the use of scooters, which cost $5,000 or more, depending on accessories. Medicare, the federal health care program for 40 million older and disabled people, said claims for scooters and power wheelchairs have increased from 62,000 in 1999 to 168,000 in 2003. Medicare payments for the devices rose from $22.3 million in 1995 to $666.5 million in 2003.

“We get letters all the time from people who tell us that they’ve been to the mailbox for the first time in years, that they’re able to go back to church,” said Dan Gibbens, spokesman for the Texas-based Scooter Store, a major supplier of power scooters and wheelchairs. “They’re able to turn the clock back several years.”

Mr. Gibbens said the devices typically move at the speed the average person walks, or 3 to 4 mph. He said that makes them appropriate for calm residential streets, but not for busy roads and highways.

In Paintsville, the problem is that the town’s sidewalks were not built with motorized scooters in mind, and some of the roads most heavily traveled by scooters do not have sidewalks. That means the elderly and disabled have to ride either on the pavement or along the gravel shoulders.

“You look up and see big trucks passing,” Mrs. Haller said. “I feel like they get pretty close to us. You’ve got to keep your eyes on the road and on the people, especially at intersections. If they don’t offer to wave you across, you’d better sit still and wait your turn.”

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