Self-driving cars give visually impaired hope

Fort Collins:  Denny Moyer hasn't driven a car in 25 years, but there is one model she can't wait to try out.

Moyer, who is legally blind, covets the small fleet of self-driving cars that are being tested in other parts of the country.

''It just gives me chills thinking about it,'' said Moyer, who was diagnosed with macular degeneration when she was 19. The disease causes visual impairment and sometimes blindness, typically in older adults.

A so-called driverless car would give Moyer, 54, and other people with visual impairments the independence they crave.

''I'm so excited about these cars,'' she said. ''They are like the 'Kitt' car in that old television series 'Knight Rider.' And I wanted one of those badly.''

But she'll have to go to California, Florida or Nevada to find a robotic car that doesn't require a human hand to guide it down the highway.

Last week, a bill that would have allowed driverless cars to travel Colorado roads was killed by its sponsor, Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray.

Brophy said he feared there would be too much opposition to his legislation from Democrats on the Senate Transportation Committee as well as from Google, which has been testing cars outfitted with about $150,000 in equipment, including a $70,000 laser-radar system.

The Google vehicles in use in California are governed to drive at the speed limit and use the sensor system to follow   maps and keep a safe distance from other cars.

The company objected to Brophy's bill.

Senate Transportation Committee chairman Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said lawmakers concurred with Google, which said the technology Brophy called for is not fully developed.

Brophy's bill would have required an operator of an automatic car to have a license and insurance. A self-driving system would also have to have an override switch; return control to the driver when that person steers, brakes or uses the override switch; and  show the driver whether the system is engaged.

''I think they felt we are nowhere near where we ought to be,'' Heath said. ''But I also believe this is going to happen. This is going to be the future.

''Self-driving cars would give people with severe vision problems a shot at leading a normal life, Brophy said. ''It will help people lead more healthy and productive lives,'' he said.

Moyer testified for Brophy's bill as an individual and as executive director of Ensight Skills Center, a Fort Collins-based non-profit that rehabilitates people with severe vision problems.

Lions Club chapters state-wide helped found and support Ensight, which provides vision assessments, occupational therapy,  assistive technology, counselling and support groups to people who have vision problems that can't be corrected by medical means.

The non-profit has satellite offices in Lafayette, Parker, Lakewood and Littleton,  as well as another main office in Greeley. Since it organized in 2001, more than 40,000 people have received services, Moyer said.

Many clients suffer from glaucoma, cataracts, eye diseases caused by diabetes as well as macular degeneration, which Moyer manages with contact lenses. With contacts, she has 20/400 vision, which means she can't drive and must depend on a regional bus system to get her from her home in Loveland to work in Fort Collins. Her commute requires two bus transfers.

Some vision-impaired people find that depending on a transit system or friends to get them where they need to go leaves them so frustrated that they become homebound, Moyer said.

''Many are afraid, many have depended on friends to drive them, and when the friends can't help, they stay at home and they get frustrated and depressed,'' said Moyer.

Transportation woes are one of the reasons why 70 per cent of the estimated 335,000 visually impaired people in Colorado are unemployed, Moyer told the Senate panel, citing the National Institutes of Health and the Colorado Health Survey of 2010.

''Think about it,'' Moyer said. ''That's a huge chunk of able-bodied people who are simply not working, not contributing to our society.''

Self-driving cars would be one huge relief to many low-sight Coloradans, she said.

''It would be an independence many people have never had,'' said Moyer. Despite last week's setback, Moyer is convinced Colorado highways will soon be filled with robotic cars.

''They are coming,'' she said, ''and it will happen in my lifetime.''

© 2013, The New York Times News Service

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