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Power chairs: older and fatter Americans are on the move

A man in a motorized wheelchair legally crosses Second Avenue S, just west of Fourth Street S in St. Petersburg.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

A man in a motorized wheelchair legally crosses Second Avenue S, just west of Fourth Street S in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG — A man on a moped crashed into a man in an electric wheelchair the other night in the middle of Fourth Street. There on the front page of the paper was a police tape picture of one of those objects we see all over. The wheeled mobility industry calls it a power chair.

They're everywhere, it seems, dotting the downtown streetscape, a kind of ant trail from the condos to the Publix and back.

The temptation is to declare these are the new symbols of this city. Used to be folks sitting on green benches, God's waiting room and whatnot, and now it's folks sitting on … these.

Truth is, though, power chairs and mobility scooters are far from just a Florida phenomenon, and mishaps are not unusual.

A 60-year-old man in Minnesota took his scooter to the store to get some Jell-O and ended up under a Ford Expedition. A 70-year-old woman on a scooter got hit by a Chrysler in Nebraska. A 79-year-old man on a scooter drowned in a marina in South Dakota. All that's just this year.

Electric mobility devices, or EMDs, are everywhere because of trends in geriatrics and bariatrics. Those are the portions of the health care industry that deal with old people and fat people.

This is America, getting bigger and older, fatter and grayer, rolling into the future.

• • •

The Brits, or at least some of them, call these devices "invalid carriages."

We the (power chair) People are more euphemistically inclined.

Hoveround, based in Sarasota, is the nation's leading direct-to-consumer power chair manufacturer. The founder and owner says he offers his customers "freedom," "independence," and "convenience," words more stirringly American than invalid.

The many manufacturers of these EMDs, most of which opened for business about 20 years ago, give their wheeled products such names as Pioneer and Frontier, Victory and Celebrity, Super Scout and TravelScoot, Sunrunner and Sundancer, Scootie, Snazzy and Jazzy, Amigo, Avenger and Go Go Elite.

But the cops? They don't know what to call them.

This conundrum came up after the Fourth Street wreck in which the moped driver died. Are these devices motor vehicles? They do have electric motors, and they are vehicles of a sort, but that description doesn't sound quite right. They don't need to be registered, after all, and they don't have state plates. And what about the people in them? They don't need a license. Does that make them pedestrians? They're clearly not using their feet.

Mulling over the confusion, Mike Puetz, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg police, this week started talking about "wattage" and "horsepower."

A couple items to consider.

So there's a woman in Minnesota. She takes her Pride scooter to her local White Castle and steers her way into the drive-through. They won't serve her. Pedestrians aren't allowed, for their own safety, the company says. They only serve registered motor vehicles in the drive-through. The woman is of course neither.

What to do?

Here's another one. This happened earlier this year in Bradenton. A 73-year-old man goes to a bar called the Oasis, drinks till he's drunk, leaves on his scooter, gets hit by a car. He's hurt, but not killed. The cops cite him for walking into the path of the car.

It's an ant trail of Amigos headed straight for a legal gray area.

• • •

State law says motorized wheelchairs are allowed on a road where the speed limit is 25 or less, or on a bicycle path, or in a crosswalk even if that crosswalk is on a road that has a speed limit of more than 25.

State law also says sidewalks are for pedestrians. No motors.

Hmm.

This is to say nothing of the fact that the manufacturers of EMDs say (even if they don't really mean) that their products aren't meant for outdoor use. Medicare, which last year paid out $547 million for power chairs, won't pay for an EMD unless it's specifically meant for indoor use.

The makers of laws, the enforcers of laws, they need to figure this stuff out, and quick.

Because Bob Gouy of United Seating and Mobility says Americans buy something like 65,000 power chairs and mobility scooters annually, and that number, he adds, is going up every year by as much as 15 percent.

Because this year, the Scooter Store in Texas, the nation's leading manufacturer, celebrated the sale of its 500,000th scooter, and that's up from 300,000 in just the last two years.

It's hard to quantify Americans' usage of EMDs. What's certain, though, is where those numbers are headed.

Up, up, up.

"We expect our sales to increase," Scooter Store spokesman J.D. Franke said, "as our population ages."

By 2025, say Census estimates, the number of people in this country 65 or older will be 66 million.

Meanwhile, two in every three Americans are overweight, one in every three is obese, and childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years.

"We're going to see more and more people riding around in scooters and wheelchairs," said Mike Moran, the executive editor of a leading home medical equipment trade publication, "because we're going to see more and more old people who can't walk and more and more heavy people who can't walk."

One of the newest scooters has headlights and brake lights. One of the newest power chairs has a "shatterproof" cup holder.

And last month, at a medical equipment trade show in Atlanta, Moran saw a product on its way to market that made him gasp.

"Oh. My. God," he said. A power chair for a 600-pound person.

News researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Power chairs: older and fatter Americans are on the move 12/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 3, 2010 10:26pm]

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