Renfrew — Since June, residents of Renfrew have noticed some shiny new vehicles driving around the streets, and in some cases, the sidewalks of town. They were not hard to miss.
At first glance one might have thought they saw a new mini car designed to resemble a bumblebee or the shiny red and white unit looks like it could be a Team Canada Smart-Car promoting a hockey tournament.
They are neither. They are Electric Mobility Scooters and their popularity is growing every day across North America. However, for Joe Gauthier and Richard “Rick” Renaud, they are much more than that. They are a way to regain some independence. An independence that allows them the freedom and ability to drive to the grocery store or go to a doctor’s appointment without having to rely on others.
Mr. Gauthier said the arrival of his beloved Bumble-Bee represents a return to a quality of life he thought was gone forever after being diagnosed with a disease that has not only reduced his physical mobility, but took away his driver’s licence.
“I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 10 years ago. All I could do was watch my body slowly break down to where I am today and today I might have trouble controlling my sense of balance walking across the kitchen floor,” the 67-year-old resident said. “The disease started off very gradually with memory loss and then some hand tremors. That is when I noticed my basic motor skills were declining to the point I was losing my balance. Now, 10 years later, with some new prescriptions the tremors are not as bad, but I still have balance issues once in a while.”
He made the transition to a common scooter for short jaunts around town, but once again his inability to control his sense of balance forced him to give up the ability to transport himself around town independently.
“I took a fall a while back on my scooter and it became too dangerous for me to drive alone so I lost that as well,” he said.
Although the loss of balance is not an everyday occurrence, it was enough for the Ministry of Transportation to take away his driver’s licence and force him to rely on others to drive him when he needed to go somewhere such as the Seniors’ Centre for a game of cards or perhaps a doctor’s appointment.
Rick Renaud is an energetic 74-year-old who remains active and loves to tinker with things. He never fails to find some project around his home to keep him occupied. After a long career at CJOH-TV in Ottawa, he and his wife decided to move to Renfrew five years ago to enjoy their retirement years.
Living in a small community like Renfrew and within eyesight of all the box stores on O’Brien Road, their second car was used mainly when Mr. Renaud was home alone and his wife was out shopping and he needed something.
“Things were going okay until this past July when I suddenly developed a really bad case of Sciatica and I could not believe the amount of pain that came with it,” Mr. Renaud said. “There were some days the pain was so bad that I was falling over a couple of times a day. Just getting in the car and trying to drive was painful. So I sold my car and when I saw one of these going around I said I am getting one of these.”
He found out there was a dealer in East Ottawa who was licensed as a distributor for Derand, a leading national company that sells and maintains the Chinese-made scooters. He visited the site and not only came away convinced he made the right choice to sell his car, but he was amazed at both the popularity of the units and the cost.
“When I went there the owner told me he was expecting a delivery of 14 scooters for his July shipment, but I was out of luck as they were already sold,” he said. “I was a little disappointed as I had my eyes set on purchasing one right away. Then I noticed one he used as the floor model and I said how much for that one. We negotiated a price and it was delivered to my home in August.”
What impressed him even more was the price. A basic enclosed model starts around $9,500 and the more expensive ones come with more accessories.
“I was amazed at just how affordable they are and I am not just talking about buying it,” Mr. Gauthier said. “You don’t need a driver’s license. There is no registration, you don’t pay for insurance, and you don’t pay for gas. Talk about a deal. You just have to plug it in, charge up the five batteries and off you go.”
Mr. Renaud interjected saying, “don’t forget the taxes,” he said. “It falls under the disability claim and there are no taxes.”
Just like classic car owners who take tremendous pride not only of the vehicles themselves, but the ability to keep them in good running order is obvious the way these two men talk about their new vehicles. It seems they can talk hours about the proper way to charge the five batteries in the unit, or whether the top speed is over 35 km/h all the way to which stereo system produces the best sound.
“Air conditioning,” Mr. Renaud suddenly blurted out. “I forgot to mention the air conditioning or the heating unit. Mine actually has air conditioning, but if you open the windows it really isn’t needed because you get a direct breeze.”
The men are hard pressed to say anything negative about their chosen means of transportation other than they are not suitable for winter driving and the vehicles are now off the road to protect them from wear and tear. Parts cannot be found in a typical auto parts store and any replacements or mechanical work needs to be done by the dealership.
They agree this type of unit is ideal for a small town, especially one like Renfrew where the recent reconstruction of the main street has provided extra wide sidewalks for them to drive on when traffic is especially busy in the summer months. They are allowed to park on the road or sidewalk and with the handicap sticker, they are allowed to park in those reserved spots.
“It’s not about how fast you can go or how far you can go on a charge,” Mr. Renaud said. “For me, it is the ability to go to the store or just a little drive. It’s called quality of life and independence. It is difficult sometimes to put a price tag on that.”
For someone like Mr. Gauthier, who was employed at the former Sears store before it closed, he was a regular fixture and was easily recognizable with a beard that rivals St. Nick’s, it is all about choices. He recently rolled his standard three-wheel scooter and it had become dangerous for himself, and others, if he were to have a similar experience again.
His switch to the fully enclosed four-wheel scooter allows him to do something he thought impossible a few months ago. He can drive to the Seniors Centre when he wants and doesn’t need to rely on others or the local Sunshine Coach during half the year or more depending on the climate.
He has become a fixture at the Shell gas station at the intersection of Hall Avenue and Raglan Street South, affectionately referred to as “Confusion Corner,” and it is impossible to miss the brightest yellow enclosed scooter in Renfrew equipped with a loud horn. When he is parked, he is almost like a celebrity as person after person wants to know about his Bumble-Bee, and both men joke that total strangers sometimes ask for permission to take a photo.
Unlike his racing buddy who still has a licence and can use his car when the snow starts to fly, Mr. Gauthier will not have the same luxury. He understands that winter means he will be reliant on others to help him get around, but in the greater scheme of life, he refers to that as an inconvenience he can live with.
“There are a lot of people out there in the world who are worse off than I am,” he said. “It all comes down to your outlook on life. Everybody gets dealt a deck of cards and sometimes you get the winning hand and sometimes you get a lousy hand. You don’t know how the game is going to end, but it is how you choose to play that hand is what decides how you are going to make out.”