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I don't know Marylou Shira Hadditt, but I owe her a huge debt of gratitude.

So do you. So does anyone who drives, walks or pedals on Sonoma County roads.

Hadditt, who is 84 and lives in Sebastopol, decided to quit driving two years ago. She described that painful decision, and her struggle with its consequences, on Tuesday's op-ed page of The Press Democrat.

It should be required reading for every older person, for every parent, for every child, for everyone. After all — if we're lucky enough — we will all face this decision some day.

And the importance of that decision has been driven home over and over again recently on our streets and roads, never more forcefully than at the top of Thursday's Page 1. That story described the denouement of a February crash in which 74-year-old Johnella Thomas mistook her accelerator for her brake pedal and lost control of her Mercedes on Bohemian Highway. The car careened off the road and slammed into a gazebo where Nola Wolf and her husband sat with others waiting for a zip-line tour through the redwoods. Wolf, 61, of Petaluma, was killed.

Thomas pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter. While she accepted responsibility for the crash, she denied she hit the accelerator instead of the brake and insisted there must have been a mechanical malfunction. She was sentenced to three years of probation and was ordered to perform 300 hours of community service. She also had her license revoked — for three years.

I don't think I'm the only one who hopes Thomas will have a chance to read Hadditt's story before she tries to get her license back.

Hadditt chose to sell her car and let her license expire before anything bad happened, before her family or the authorities or tragic circumstances forced the decision upon her. By doing so, she remained in control of her own life, but that doesn't mean the decision came easily.

"At first it was very difficult," she wrote. "It's still not easy."

Her car, Hadditt wrote, gave her both freedom and privacy. She could go where she wanted and enjoy those travels in "delicious aloneness." Letting that go caused anxiety, depression and introspection.

But she perseveres.

Now, she relies on friends, family, public transportation and "creativity" to get around. She knows the schedules, prices, policies and "individual quirks" of a variety of transit services ranging from local Sebastopol routes to regional buses that take her to Oakland and San Francisco.

It's a patchwork transportation system that is no substitute for the ease and convenience of a private automobile. But Hadditt said she saw her own driving skills deteriorating, and when one day she looked down and noticed her own foot on the gas pedal instead of the brake, she thought of a 2003 accident in Santa Monica where an elderly man plowed his car through a farmers market, killing 10 and injuring dozens more.

That was an extreme example, but it certainly isn't the only one, or the closest to home. A series of accidents involving elderly drivers — including the one that killed Wolf — have plagued Sonoma County this year, prompting a lot of discussion among family members about when and how to decide it's time for older people to give up their cars.

Hadditt had that discussion with herself, and made a decision that she said is still difficult almost two years later.

If only we could all be so smart, so unselfish, so brave when our decision time arrives.

<i>Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.</i>

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