Preventing a tragedy for seniors behind the wheel

  • This artwork by Donna Grethen relates to memory -- as in losing keys or forgetting where the car is parked.

When my dad's driving deteriorated, I called the California Department of Motor Vehicles and asked about the procedure for having his license revoked. I could fill out a form, I was told, and my dad would be called in to have his driving ability re-evaluated.

I thought about it but did nothing. My brother said we should remove the carburetor and tell our father the car was kaput, but we never did that either.

If you've been in this situation, you know the dance. My dad insisted he was driving just fine, but the evidence was not on his side. One-way signs became invisible, lane markers faded, speed and distance were wild guesses.

If we took away his keys, as my mother pointed out, we'd be stealing his last bit of independence and making him miserable. If we didn't, and he hurt himself or someone else, we'd be responsible.

My dad eventually got so sick that the driving issue was moot, and when he died in February, he hadn't driven in months. But still, I should have taken charge a couple of years earlier, and I'll always regret being so irresponsible. When loved ones get old, sometimes you have to take action, and judging by my mail lately, no one finds it easy.

"Ten years from now, this is going to be happening in epidemic proportions," said Craig Power, whose 90-year-old father died from injuries suffered in a 2010 car accident in Orange County. The car was driven by his father's 85-year-old girlfriend, who was being treated for dementia.

Power sued the driver's doctor for not reporting her to authorities, but a jury decided the physician had not violated state law. California requires doctors to notify county health officials about disorders "severe enough to impair a person's ability to operate a motor vehicle." The doctor in this case said he had reported other patients, but this particular patient wasn't disabled enough to report.

As the nation ages, this will come up more and more. We're expected to have 57 million drivers 65 and older by 2030, and while texting teenagers or drunk drivers may be more deadly behind the wheel, that's no reason to avoid dealing with a growing convoy of cognitive loss.

Some people have suggested that elderly drivers should be required to take driving tests at age 75 or older — in addition to the written tests and eye exams required after age 70 — rather than have their licenses automatically renewed. Recently, after I wrote about a 72-year-old legally blind doctor who had his license renewed by the DMV, I heard from readers saying they've been shocked to find that their parents' and friends' licenses were renewed into their 90s.

"A friend with early signs of dementia began calling me from her car and asking directions to places well-known to her," said Diane Portillo of Redondo Beach, who notified her friend's doctor. The license was eventually revoked, but it took a couple of years.

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