TCS Daily


By Ralph Kinney Bennett - September 11, 2003 12:00 AM

I still remember the day my mother gave me the keys to her little bronze Dodge Dart and said with tears in her eyes that she wouldn't be driving anymore. She knew it was a precious freedom she was giving up. But a tiny stroke and other complications from her diabetes, especially diabetic retinopathy, had sealed the whole thing.

If there was one small positive in the whole traumatic affair it was that she did it of her own volition. She knew she was "an accident waiting to happen." I cried, too, because I knew what a wrenching experience it was for her to no longer be able to slip behind the wheel and drive out to church at Oak Grove, or run down to the Giant Eagle for groceries, or visit her sister in the nursing home.

My mother, who died in 1994 at the age of 85, had grown up with the automobile. She, her sister and two brothers spent a lot of their young lives in my grandmother's Model T touring car back in the early 1920s. Grandma McDonald would lash suitcases, picnic hampers and laundry baskets to the running boards and fenders of the Ford and then drive up out of the smoky steel town of North Braddock, Pa., and head for the cool country air of Ligonier, 50 miles away.

My mother came to know all the tourist cabins, roadhouses, ramshackle restaurants and "filling stations" (nothing more than little stores with a gas pump stuck out front) along the Lincoln Highway, now U.S. Route 30. One memorable trip, Grandma had so many flat tires that she ran out of patches. The final flat was in the shadowy confines of the Chestnut Ridge gorge. My mother and my aunt, Inez, were just young girls. Grandma gave them each a tire iron. "If anyone comes up to the car, bop them on the head," she said, and trudged off into the gathering evening with a carbide lamp to look for help.

My mother learned to drive on that old Model T. Later she drove a Model A. Then, while raising us three brothers alone, she drove a succession of cars to and from her many jobs. She was a working woman before such a thing was fashionable. She always needed a car and could never afford a new one. The first I remember was a 1936 Chevy coupe that she drove during World War II. Her brother got drunk and wrecked it. Then she got a 1936 Plymouth two-door sedan that used to embarrass me when she drove it to school to pick us up. (I'd give anything to have that car now.)

She had one of those bathtub Nashes in the early 50s, and a couple of DeSotos, and, well, I lost track after I went away to college. Several of her jobs took her on long commutes over two-lane roads. She drove through rough Pennsylvania winters, learning to battle with chains and frozen radiators. She piled up more miles selling cosmetics door to door to help make ends meet. She only had one or two minor accidents. She was a pretty good driver -- careful but not fearful. She didn't poke along tentatively. She got where she had to go.

Once, when she was nearly blind and unable to walk, I was taking her for a drive in my old Cadillac convertible. She closed her eyes and let the breeze blow against her face. "This is wonderful," she said. About a minute later she said, "Oh, I wish I could drive again."

I thought about all this because of recent media coverage of the "problem" of older people behind the wheel. It all heated up again back in July when an 86-year-old driver plowed into a crowd at a farmers market in Santa Monica, killing 10 people.

Get those geezers off the road! That was my immediate reaction. Indeed, in the wake of that accident, many states have begun considering more frequent and stringent license renewal screening for older drivers. Twenty-one states already require drivers in their 60s and 70s to renew more often and in some cases take new behind the wheel tests to check vision and reaction time.

The Wall Street Journal featured a story on "driver-rehab specialists," who will retrain older drivers or -- perish the thought -- advise them to turn in their ignition keys. You've probably seen the salient figures. In 1990 there were about 14 million drivers over the age of 70. By 2000 there were19 million.

There are other ominous statistics. Drivers 80 years old and older are more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than any other age group of drivers except teenagers. U.S. Department of Transportation survey figures show that these two groups -- at opposite ends of the age spectrum -- spend the least time behind the wheel but figure in the most fatal accidents.

So there we are, caught on the road somewhere between a wigged out kid with his baseball hat turned backwards and his sound system at full decibel, and some liver-spotted guy with his Sansabelts up to his nipples and a thin filament of saliva extending from his lower lip to the steering wheel.

But then I think about my mom. I'm not sure she could tell an Oldsmobile from a Pontiac, yet driving a car was an essential part of her existence and her happiness. And I think about myself. I'm 62 years old, on the verge of geezerdom. I love to drive. Sometimes, when I don't have anywhere to go, I like to get behind the wheel of my old Caddy, or my SUV and just drive. Men, I think, are born with a cruising gene.

I think, too, of all those drivers now in their 70s and 80s, who must have winced when they read about that guy plowing into all those people. They are even more auto oriented than my mother. They grew up after World War II, when autos multiplied and became easier and more enjoyable to drive. They were in the first great migration to the suburbs, the first burgeoning of drive-in restaurants, drive-in theaters, and drive-in banks.

Nothing else, no other machine, no other advance of science, has given them the mobility and independence that the automobile has. So state governments should tread lightly and carefully in this matter. It might be useful, for instance, to do some analytical studies that try to determine how often the age of a driver is purely incidental to the accident that adds to the statistics.

By all means, screen for poor vision, test reaction time, weed out those whose physical frailties compromise their ability to drive safely. (This all applies to drivers of any age.) But remember that there are millions of older people whose driving records are exemplary or at least on par with the mass of drivers. And in their waning years, their lives are demonstrably better for the simple fact that they can, say, drive the old Crown Vicky down to McDonalds early in the morning for coffee with the boys, deliver Meals on Wheels, or pick up the gals and drive to the church dinner, or a shopping trip to Wal-Mart.

As for me, I hope, when the time comes I will have the good sense my mother had to bow tearfully but somewhat gracefully to the inevitable. But don't count on it. They may just have to cut the steering wheel off the column and bury me with it.


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