Stricken for years with debilitating arthritis, Connie Haller had given up on taking leisurely strolls along the streets of this mountain town.
But when the 78-year-old learned that the government would buy her a motorized scooter, she gladly accepted, and so did her elderly friends, and their friends, and their friends.
Now, this town of 4,000 in the heart of Kentucky's coalfields -- a region with historically high numbers of disabled residents -- is seemingly overrun.
Scores of scooters and motorized wheelchairs run along busy streets to the Wal-Mart, restaurants and beauty salons. Motorists complain that they snarl traffic, and the gray-haired riders fuss about the dangers of sharing the pavement with cars and trucks.
"Something has to be done," said Mayor Doug Pugh, who believes the government helped create the problem and it should help pay for the sidewalks that would solve it.
Elderly and disabled residents have been circulating a petition to get a quarter-mile walkway built from the town's residential area to the shopping district so they don't have to ride on the shoulder of Kentucky 321, a busy thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants.
"It would be a lot safer," Pugh said. "These aren't like little motorcycles -- they shouldn't have to be on the roads."
Paintsville's plight reflects a government-subsidized explosion of the scooters, which cost $5,000 or more depending on accessories.
Last year, Medicare, the federal health care program for 40 million older and disabled people, ordered more scrutiny of claims for scooters and power wheelchairs.
Those claims have increased from 62,000 in 1999 to 168,000 in 2003. Medicare payments for the devices rose from $22.3 million in 1995 to $666.5 million in 2003.
People who receive the devices generally are so severely disabled that they need them to get around inside their homes, said Dan Gibbens, spokesman for the Texas-based Scooter Store, a major supplier of power scooters and wheelchairs.
"We get letters all the time from people who tell us that they've been to the mailbox for the first time in years, that they're able to go back to church," he said. "They're able to turn the clock back several years."
Gibbens said the devices typically move at the same speed the average person walks, 3 to 4 mph. He said that makes them appropriate for calm residential streets, but not for busy roads and highways.
Paintsville officials aren't sure how many people in the town have the scooters. But Haller said she knows of at least 50 in her apartment building.
"It's been a lifesaver for me, and for many others," she said. "We ride our buggies everywhere."
Paintsville faces its scooter problem because the town's network of sidewalks wasn't built with motorized scooters in mind, and some of the roads most heavily traveled by scooters don't have sidewalks. That means the elderly and disabled have to ride either on the pavement or along the gravel shoulders of the roadway.
"You look up and see big trucks passing," Haller said. "I feel like they get pretty close to us. You've got to keep your eyes on the road and on the people, especially at intersections. If they don't offer to wave you across, you'd better sit still and wait your turn."
So far, 47-year-old Vickie Whittaker has been the only scooter rider hurt in traffic. Already disabled by degenerative discs in her spine, Whittaker suffered minor injuries after being bumped by a car earlier this summer.
She said if elected officials don't move quickly to build the walkway, they could find themselves opposed by a dedicated block of voters who will gladly ride their scooters to the polls.
"Obviously, they don't care if we get where we're going or if we get killed going there," she said.
Police Chief Larry Vanhoose said mixing the scooters with cars and trucks is a recipe for disaster.
"It's not safe," Vanhoose said. "These things weren't designed to be on the highway or on the side of the highway."