TAMPA — Michael Delancey is used to his father being his constant chauffeur.
After a sniper's bullet in Iraq left the 22-year-old Marine without the use of his legs in late 2006, Delancey faced a crushing loss of independence.
A French invention is helping him get some of it back.
Officials at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa are the first in the nation to adopt a device imported from France that they say allows veterans like Delancey to drive with more ease and safety than ever before.
And most importantly: alone.
Hand controls for auto brakes and acceleration have been around for decades, allowing the disabled to drive. But the system being used at Haley uses a digital accelerator ring attached to the steering wheel. It lets the driver more often keep both hands safely on the wheel, Haley officials say.
A hand control next to the steering wheel is used to brake.
Haley officials say both require less force to operate than other systems, an important consideration for veterans with weakened arms or shoulders.
"It's great," said Delancey, a Pinellas Park resident who has driven a converted Veterans Affairs vehicle and will have the system installed on a Range Rover that he will soon buy.
"I don't have to be chauffeured around by my parents anymore," Delancey said. "The best part is now I can go on a date by myself."
Dr. Steven Scott, director of Haley's polytrauma rehabilitation center, said the system, made by Kempf Inc., is a vast improvement over other hand-control devices.
For one, it can be installed without disabling air bags, a problem posed by some other systems, he said.
"Something like this opens up the world for veterans," Scott said. "It helps them expand their friendships, it expands their opportunities for work and it expands opportunities for fun."
Haley, the nation's busiest VA hospital, pays the $10,000 to $15,000 cost to convert a car. The VA has provided other driving systems for many years, but Scott said he hopes it will adopt the Kempf design nationally.
So far, about 10 veterans have been trained at Haley to use the device, which can be installed on most vehicles.
Kempf, a privately held firm, converts about 1,000 cars in Europe each year. The company's founder, the late Jean-Pierre Kempf, invented the device in 1954, but only in 2007 did Kempf open operations in the United States, including a one-man shop in Tampa to help with car conversions.
Some in the business of converting cars for the disabled take issue with the boast that this system may be superior to others.
Bill Siebert of Iowa, president of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, said he wasn't familiar with the Kempf design. But he said competition among manufacturers is intense, with many good systems to choose among.
He said other models also offer ease of use without requiring air bags to be disabled. He didn't, however, know of anyone currently offering an acceleration wheel like Kempf's.
"I don't understand why the VA is singling them out," Siebert said. "To be very honest, it bothers me that the VA would recommend one device."
The biggest obstacle, Siebert said, would be warranty service and maintenance if Kempf has only one area outlet performing conversions.
But Kempf president Martine Kempf, daughter of its founder, said she will pay to ship a broken vehicle under warranty to a repair facility, whatever the distance, or send a mechanic to the car.
By the end of the year, Kempf said, her Tampa operation may expand to four employees and she may open other outlets around the nation.
Scott said Haley isn't endorsing one system over another but is doing what it thinks is best for veterans.
He said driving opens new vistas for disabled veterans, helping them cope with depression and making them more eager to rehabilitate.
"It allows them to make their own choices and decisions," Scott said. "That's what rehabilitation is all about."
Delancey's father, also named Michael Delancey, said the idea of freedom on the road has transformed his son.
"It's going to be a whole new start for him."
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3436.