Crossroads : When Is It Time to Relinquish the Keys and Stop Driving?

Agnes Herman is a writer, lecturer and retired social worker living in Lake San Marcos.

Joe's driving record was without blemish. He wove his Mercedes in and out of the morning traffic with skill and cunning. For years, he met, successfully, the challenge of the freeways. But, as his health declined, Joe began to drive more slowly and grip the wheel more tightly. One day, he drove his car into the garden wall, the wall that he had not even grazed in 25 years. Reluctantly, Joe relinquished the keys to the car. His confidence was eroded and his sense of security shaken.

Those of us who have driven California highways comfortably for years would find it difficult to think about relinquishing our car keys. Nevertheless, some of us who are over 50, 60 or 70, recognize that we are gripping the wheel more tightly, moving more slowly.

Not every mature driver experiences this change. A neighbor who is past 80 commutes from North County to Pasadena several times each week to visit family. "I drive the speed limit, it takes me two hours and fifteen minutes exactly . . . no problem!"

She demonstrates the validity of the Department of Motor Vehicles' conclusion that older drivers do not constitute a "problem group," even though, on occasion, some slow or uncertain drivers cause fender-benders.

The department understands the need of older drivers to keep driving. Each month, for example, the DMV goes to senior centers around the county, making driving tests convenient for those who need to renew their licenses.

Age is merely one factor to consider when assessing a driver's ability to perform safely, according to Arnold Cordova, DMV Operations Officer in Escondido.

Knowledge of the rules of the road, the driver's good health and satisfactory handling of the car are vital considerations. For renewal, drivers must take an eye test, a written exam and, if a health problem has surfaced since the last renewal, must provide a written doctor's report. A license exam can be taken as many as three times.

A poor performance in one area of the driving test does not automatically mean loss of license. If one fails the eye test, for example, the examiner will suggest a visit to an eye doctor and a return with a written assessment from that physician.

Should an examiner observe a developing disability, such as a tremor or a lack of concentration, a medical check-up will be recommended. If a dramatic change in health is observed, a limited license is often issued, perhaps a renewal for one or two years, instead of four.

The door to driving is not impulsively slammed shut by the DMV.

Often, the decision to close the door is one that individuals must make themselves, as they sense their skills slipping.

Sometimes, we "shades of gray" individuals are stubborn when the time comes to let someone else do the driving. We are unwilling to ask a family member or neighbor for a ride, or to take public transportation. We have our reasons: an empty garage is wasted space; it's inconvenient to arrange a ride. But when our faulty driving cannot be improved, the car becomes a lethal weapon, far more dangerous to well-being than what might be a boring day at home.

A worried family member can request in writing that the DMV revoke the license of a elderly relative whose driving alertness appears to be failing. The DMV encourages family participation in what unfortunately is usually a painful process.

When my father-in-law was past 80, he was increasingly uncomfortable behind the wheel of his car, but he was determined to continue to drive. His family, fearful of destroying his self-image and confidence, was not eager to confront his failing. But, we were all brought up sharply when an accident terrified him--he quit before he killed or was killed.

It is senseless to wait for accidents to make decisions. They can be fatal; they are always traumatic.

The Auto Club and the American Assn. for Retired People work with older drivers as they reach crossroads.

One does not have to be an Auto Club member to chat with a club counselor or receive brochures that focus on the concerns of mature drivers: "Am I Too Old to Drive?", "Safety Tips for Older Drivers" and "Pedestrian Safety Rules."

These counselors can recommend refresher courses for mature drivers' who have difficulty passing DMV exams or have become uncomfortable behind the wheel.

Robert Weisen of the American Assn. for Retired People said the organization's "55 is Alive" program provides a two-day driving course that sharpens driving skills and driver alertness. (For information, call 455-1049.)

In the past three years, more than a million drivers have participated in "55 is Alive."

In North County, the oldest person to have taken the course is 92. When that gentleman completed the road test, his examiner wrote, "He is a fine student, a better driver than the most competent youngsters."

License renewal and driving pose knotty problems for many mature drivers, but, the knots can be untangled.

And the list of alternatives to driving is substantial: one can take a bus, call Dial-a-Ride or Lifeline, seek hospital-provided transportation, ask a friend, walk, call a cab, take the train. The Auto Club encourages older drivers to consider bus trips and will help plan such trips, or even create a club-sponsored tour.

Fun does not have to disappear with the car keys.

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