JACKSON, Maine — Mert Danna, 20, has a very rare hereditary disease that left him legally blind at birth.
He also lives in rural Waldo County, more than 15 miles from Belfast, and depends on other people to bring him places. Now, Danna, who wears thick glasses to correct his vision to 20-80, is striving to change that.
“I was a week old when the doctor told my mom I’d never be able to drive,” he said Wednesday. “If I could get where I need to go when I wanted, that would be really cool. I’ve never been able to do that.”
The Mount View High School graduate and barbershop music aficionado is now studying at the University of Southern Maine, with a long-term goal of being a music teacher. But Danna’s short-term goal is to figure out a way to purchase a pedal and solar-powered tricycle that could get him to work, music rehearsals and other places. The ELF is made by a former Maine man now manufacturing the vehicles in Durham, North Carolina, and is classified as a bicycle under federal guidelines.
A bicycle, Danna said, is something that he can ride — even though the ELF doesn’t look like an ordinary bicycle. It features a sturdy shell that protects the rider from rain and the elements, a storage compartment for grocery bags or schoolbooks, and visibility and safety features like headlights, taillights and turn signals. It also has a solar-charged battery to power an electric motor that can reach speeds of up to 20 miles per hour.
He will not need a license to operate the ELF, according to Patty Morneault, the deputy secretary of state for the bureau of motor vehicles. That’s because the state does not regulate electric motors that are smaller than 1,500 watts, and the ELF’s motor has just 600 watts. Riders would have to abide by Maine bicycle laws.
“I’d wear a helmet,” Danna said. “I feel that I’d be able to comfortably do it.”
But the ELF isn’t cheap, and the college student is hoping friends and others will help him raise $10,000 to purchase a tricked-out ELF of his own. The money will pay for the ELF, extra batteries, extra storage space, better tires for the winter, a GPS and speedometer, and a better gear hub to help him get over the rolling hills of interior Waldo County.
“Imagine if you couldn’t drive, and had to walk everywhere you needed to go,” Danna said. “I think people take being able to drive for granted a lot of the time. If I could do that, I would. But I can’t.”
Rob Cotter, the founder and CEO of Organic Transit, lived in Waldoboro during the 1980s, and said Wednesday that several Mainers already own the ELF. One L.L. Bean employee, an avid cyclist, does his 40 mile round-trip commute in the ELF when it is raining or snowing out. Cotter also knows of at least five of the vehicles that have been purchased by people who are legally blind, like Danna. Others with different disabilities have bought it, too, as well as people who just don’t want a car.
“I think the era of the romance of the car is coming to an end,” Cotter said. “Now we’re looking at the alternatives.”
Cotter, who moved to North Carolina from the coast of Maine in the early 1990s to develop green vehicles, said that his company now makes 300 units a year and is striving to get to 1,200. The demand is definitely there, he said.
“The early adopters liked the idea of getting a little, tiny solar vehicle. Like an ultra-light [plane] for the road,” he said. “As time goes on, it hits a more conventional audience. They like the safety, they like the weather protection … they’d like to use their car less, or get more exercise, or save a bunch of money, or take responsibility for the environment.”
For Danna, it really is about freedom.
“If I owned one of these, it would legitimately change my life,” he wrote in his online fundraising page. “I would be able to quickly and safely bike to my destination. Being able to do this would further empower my independence.”
To help Danna with his fundraising goal, visit the website www.gofundme.com/94nvv0.