Crash Adds Urgency, Emotion to Debate Over Elderly Drivers

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Times Staff Writers

Mary Louise Nelson, 82, and her daughter, Wendy Winningham, make each other laugh and finish each other’s sentences. But when their conversation Thursday turned to the 86-year-old man who drove through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, there was awkwardness.

“I’m only driving within three miles of my home,” said Nelson, who has glaucoma. “I don’t have any trouble driving.”

“She feels like she can,” said Winningham, 49. “I feel like she shouldn’t.”

It’s a role reversal, a twist on the battle of wills between the teenager eager for the freedom a driver’s license brings and the fretful parent reluctant to turn over the keys.


This time around, the child worries about safety, and the parent complains of being babied.

On Thursday, as the death toll from Wednesday’s tragedy in Santa Monica rose to 10, the perennial debate took on new urgency. In Southern California, where a car can be a lifestyle and a lifeline, it seemed to be all many people could talk about.

As the head of the California Highway Patrol called for stricter testing of drivers older than 75, sons and daughters told of hiding keys and disabling engines to keep their aging parents -- hard of hearing, thickly lensed, slow to react -- off the road.

Nelson pilots her enormous Olds 98 around Sherman Oaks to shop and run errands. A few years ago, her children told her they didn’t want her to drive alone to visit them in Camarillo and Oak Park. They pick her up.

Winningham drove her back to Los Angeles on Thursday after four days in Oak Park, and they went shopping at the Grove.

Nelson said she didn’t cling to her license just for convenience. “My children are so busy,” she said. “I don’t want to be a burden.”


She also said she still feels bad, years later, about the way her family got her own mother to stop driving. Nelson’s brother called the motor vehicle department in Pennsylvania and urged the testers not to renew her license. They didn’t.

“I think it was terrible,” Nelson said. “He should have let her pass that test and then tried to reason with her.”

In California there is no provision for reporting a driver simply on the basis of advanced age, because state law considers that discrimination. Moreover, if the DMV receives a report about an unsafe driver, the agency generally sends the driver a letter, saying a complaint was received and encouraging safer driving habits.

If the report is filed by a physician, police officer or immediate family member, however, state law requires that the driver be retested, said DMV spokesman Steve Haskins. Dr. Larry Baraff, longtime associate director of emergency medicine at UCLA Medical Center, encountered such a situation Wednesday.

Until then, he had never singled out a driver for DMV review. But after overseeing the initial treatment of 13 people injured at the farmers market, Baraff reported a driver -- a man in his 60s with a form of Parkinson’s disease who had been in a solo accident.

“I thought if I send this guy out and he does hurt anyone else, I’m going to feel bad,” the doctor said.


In Alhambra on Thursday, Vincent Polito remembered worrying that his 88-year-old father, Frank, would hurt someone. Two years ago, he took action.

“I don’t think he will ever forgive me for selling his car,” said Vincent, 60. His father had been in two crashes in a year and could no longer read street signs. “It got to the point where there was an argument and he was totally against it.... I had to do it to save him and to save other people.”

The elder Polito, who coached Little League baseball for 40 years and was known for his get-tough attitude, still has a valid license, despite little peripheral vision and one eye with only 6% sight. But now he must rely on others to get around.

“Oh, God, it’s like taking your life away,” he said Thursday after riding an Alhambra Senior Dial-a-Ride van to a senior center. “I can’t just do what I want anymore.”

Other gray-haired fathers and mothers said they were standing their ground. They expressed fears that the Santa Monica deaths would lead to unreasonable restrictions on their driving privileges, compounding the hardships and indignities of advanced age.

“Everybody that’s come in the door today has been talking about it,” said Alice Merritt, 81, who was volunteering at the Long Beach Senior Center with her sister, Julie, 72. They both drive.


“I’m worried. I’m 81,” she said. Wednesday’s crash “just may change everything. We’ll have to take the written test [more often], we’ll have to take the driving test.”

Merritt said she knows her limitations. She said she never drives the freeway, never tops 40 mph in her Ford Focus, and had planned even before Wednesday’s crash to park her car for good when her license expired in three years.

Center director Shelley Hellen said losing the ability to drive is extremely traumatic for most people. “You lose your independence,” she said. “So people can really go downhill from there.”

At a Santa Monica community center near the farmers market, over plates of macaroni and cheese a group of older men Thursday said they didn’t need younger people to tell them when to give up their wheels. But they said they sometimes worried about each other.

“You see him? He can’t walk. But he drives!” said Jimmy Hu, 80, pointing at 90-year-old Theodore Miller, who was hunched over a cane.

Miller said he is very careful in his 1985 Dodge. “There’s nothing wrong with older drivers,” the retired barber said. “Younger drivers are the problem. They’re careless.”


At the Paseo Colorado shopping center in Pasadena, Nadine Emerzian, 71, recalled how tough it was to make her father stop driving. She said that experience prepared her to be more realistic about her own fading skills navigating L.A. streets and freeways.

“We had to take the keys away from Dad,” Emerzian said. “He was 88. But he was still driving at 90, sneaking around on us.”

Cecile Betts was losing her eyesight when she gave up driving nearly four years ago. Her doctor had told her that macular degeneration had left her legally blind.

“Of course, I never drove again,” said Betts, 85, who lives in the retirement community of Laguna Woods. “Then when [my license] expired, I received an offer to renew it by mail. I didn’t take them up on it.... I knew it wasn’t safe for me or for other people to continue driving.”

She said she needed no prodding from family members, even though relinquishing her car radically altered her life. Betts used to think nothing of tooling down to the Grand Canyon for a few days.

“At first, I spent a lot of time crying, ‘How in the world am I going to get to my medical appointments? To my activities?’ ” she said. “It was quite a shock.”


But Betts said she soon viewed her inability to drive as just another “nuisance” that comes with aging, like the pacemaker in her chest. Just another hurdle to overcome, like the colon cancer she survived a few years back.

“I have friends who say if they couldn’t drive they would rather die,” she said. “I ask them, ‘Is being a driver the only thing that defines you?’ ”

Max Stephens, 74, of Hemet, traveled by bus to Farmers Market in the Fairfax district Thursday, a trip organized by his mobile home park. But he said he would think nothing of driving the distance.

“I hope I’m smart enough to give it up when the time comes,” said Stephens, a retired highway patrolman from Kansas.

His father wasn’t smart enough, he said. When he began driving erratically in his declining years, Stephens recalled, the children avoided a confrontation. Instead, Stephens’ brother disconnected some wires so his father’s car wouldn’t start.

The old man, in his late 80s, was suffering from dementia, and never knew why the engine wouldn’t turn over. Stephens said: “My dad, he’d sit out in the car with tears in his eyes because it wouldn’t start. He’d sit there for an hour.”




Contributing to the coverage of the Santa Monica crash were Times staff writers Hector Becerra, Sharon Bernstein, Daren Briscoe, Miguel Bustillo, Stephanie Chavez, Jia-Rui Chong, Rich Connell, Tina Daunt, Cara Mia DiMassa, Li Fellers, Robin Fields, Kathleen Flynn, Sue Fox, Jessica Garrison, Megan Garvey, Scott Glover, Martha Groves, Erika Hayasaki, Daniel Hernandez, Allison Hoffman, Steve Hymon, Carl Ingram, Akilah Johnson, Michael Krikorian, Matt Lait, Mitchell Landsberg, Nita Lelyveld, Caitlin Liu, Robert J. Lopez, Eric Malnic, Scott Martelle, Joe Mathews, Jennifer Mena, Geoffrey Mohan, Monte Morin, Jennifer Oldham, Charles Ornstein, David Pierson, Paul Pringle, Kenneth Reich, Polly Ross, Joel Rubin, Doug Smith, Larry B. Stammer, Connie Stewart, Jocelyn Y. Stewart, Julie Tamaki, Wendy Thermos, Tracy Weber, Henry Weinstein, Kenneth R. Weiss, Nancy Wride and Nora Zamichow.