Talking to older drivers about giving up the keys a difficult but necessary conversation, experts say

  • 89 year-old June Withington of Santa Rosa navigates a roadway near her home, Friday Nov. 16, 2012. When Withington turns 90, she will be retested on her driving skills by the DMV. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

June Withington can't imagine life without her Buick.

Without her car, the 89-year-old Santa Rosa woman said she couldn't get to the doctor, church or to play bridge. Her son has offered to drive her, but the Kentucky-born Withington said she wouldn't want to impose.

Nevertheless, her worry that maybe it's no longer safe to be on the road was underscored Thursday when she caused a minor fender bender as she was leaving her dentist's office.

Withington, whose husband died in 2010, said she's no longer comfortable having other people ride in her Buick with her.

"I wouldn't want to be responsible for anybody if I had an accident," she said.

Such calculations are played out daily across Sonoma County and the nation as the population ages. It can lead to a difficult choice for seniors and their families, one that often pits independence against the common good: When should someone give up their keys?

The topic is a delicate one to broach. Many family members and friends of older drivers struggle with ways to raise the subject of an individual's behind-the-wheel behavior without it being perceived as accusatory or demeaning.

But it's a conversation experts say needs to happen now more than ever. As evidence, they point to a series of tragedies in Sonoma County over the past three weeks, including crashes that claimed two lives and seriously injured a 13-year-old boy.

"A lot of people are in denial that they are going to have to change the way they do things," said Christina Clem, a spokeswoman for AARP in Sacramento.

In Sonoma County, there were 36,355 licensed drivers age 70 or older at the start of 2012. Of those, 1,678 were age 90 or older, according to the DMV.

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