Spate of accidents involving elderly drivers puts focus on how to help people decide when to give up the keys
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 her bridge game. 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.
Experts say age alone is not a good indicator of a person's driving fitness, hence resistance on the part of AARP and other advocacy groups in establishing an upper age limit for drivers.
"It would be unfair to tell a 72-year-old driver that they shouldn't be driving just because of their age, when all of their cognitive abilities are fine," Clem said.
Many remain confident of their skills. One study found 83 percent of respondents 65 and older have no plan for when they might eventually have to hang up the keys, she said.
Advocates implore older drivers and their loved ones to talk about the issue before it becomes a crisis.
"It's a huge life change and everybody needs to be involved to make it work," said Dean Brittingham, transportation coordinator at the Sebastopol Area Senior Center.
Last week, Brittingham addressed about 30 people at a "Transition from Driving" seminar at the Bennett Valley Senior Center. The event, sponsored by the Sonoma County Area Agency on Aging, was the last in a series of seminars held at senior centers across Sonoma County this year to address concerns about older drivers.
Some participants were there because they wanted to assess whether it's time for them to stop driving. Others came hoping for tips on how to broach the subject with a loved one.
Withington attended the presentation along with her son, Richard, who drove that evening because his mother no longer drives at night.
"It's easy to talk about this because we care about one another," he said. "Unless we do this, we're going to have challenges ahead."