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Helping a senior family member recognize when it's time to put away the car keys is one of the most challenging discussions a family will have.

But as Staff Writer Derek Moore illustrated in his story last Sunday ("Too old to drive?"), the most difficult part is often deciding when and how to do it.

As was underscored in a recent seminar at the Bennett Valley Senior Center titled "Transition from Driving," the decision should not be based on age but on real driving concerns.

In recognition of their own driving challenges, some seniors begin to make changes on their own, such as not driving at night or refusing to allow others to be in the car with them. But what about those on the street?

The risks have been made clear in recent days in Sonoma County.

On Oct. 27, two teenage boys were struck by a car while walking in a crosswalk in front of Sassarini Elementary School. One of the boys was left with a skull fracture. The driver was a 92-year-old Sonoma man who, according to authorities, at first denied hitting the boys despite witnesses and damage to his car. The man's license has since been suspended.

Two weeks later, an 80-year-old Boyes Hot Springs man allegedly struck and killed a man as he crossed First Street West on a motorized scooter. The victim was 93-year-old Alvin Hesse, a World War II veteran and a former employee of KRON-TV. Authorities say in this case, the driver also denied striking anyone when first pulled over.

That same day, 88-year-old Evelyn Cunningham was killed when she pulled her car into the path of a van driven by a 79-year-old man at the Santa Rosa Marketplace.

All of these incidents have renewed conversations about the dangers posed by some senior drivers to themselves and to others. Speakers at the Bennett Valley forum encouraged family members to raise the issue through a series of chats instead of having one major family meeting. They also encouraged a nonjudgmental approach — removing blame but instead emphasizing that losing one's driving skills is a natural part of the aging process.

At the same time, communities also need to be more sensitive to the transportation alternatives they provide seniors.

Seniors who live in retirement complexes often have shuttle services available to them. But what about others?

Some communities provide free shuttle service for seniors for medical appointments and other needs. (The Sonoma County Area Council on Aging has a complete list of all these transportation alternatives.)

But in many areas, the offerings are limited. Unfortunately, last week, Santa Rosa city officials boosted bus fares and cut back service levels in order to address a $1 million budget gap. The result is that some seniors are going to find it harder to get around, making them less open to the idea of giving up their licenses.

As one speaker at the Bennett Valley forum noted, common responses to losing a driver's license are depression, isolation and despondence.

It's the burden of friends and families to help seniors recognize when it's time to get out from behind the wheel. But it's the obligation of community members to help ensure the seniors have the alternatives they need to get around — through bus and shuttle service or just from the helping hands of neighbors willing to give a lift.

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In a society that values self-reliance sometimes above all else, seniors need to be assured they will have a way to get around — and that isolation is not going to be their final destination. It's a point that needs to be driven home.

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