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An elderly mother, the car keys and a conundrum for countless Michigan families

My mother's driving career ended with both a bang and a whimper.

From her hospital bed she told me, "I was admiring the beautiful autumn leaves when the truck pulled out in front of me." As a matter of fact, the truck hadn't moved. It was parked. The police report told the tale.

The accident happened one October afternoon about five years ago, on a side street near my mother's Detroit home. Her 84-year-old surgically reconditioned heart survived the crash. Her 12-year-old Chevy Cavalier did not. After two days in the hospital, my mother left under her own power, more or less. The Chevy, on the other hand, was declared a total loss.

A new law recently slipped, below the radar, into a parking spot on Michigan's books. It allows doctors to directly notify the Secretary of State’s Office if they believe the medical condition of their patients makes them unfit to drive. While the law presumably applies to people of all ages, its primary targets are elderly drivers.

A threat to the mobility of senior citizens? A godsend to those who fear for the safety of the elderly drivers in their families (not mention the people who share the roads with them)? Well, as always, it depends on whose ox is being gored.

Relinquishing the car keys is one of late-life's most traumatic moments. After all, we don't usually lose the ability to drive safely all at once. It happens the way these losses generally happen -- in small increments, over a period of years. Who's to say when a little absentmindedness, a little slowing of the reflexes, turns into a traffic hazard?

The right to drive is not only a practical tool of mobility, it's also a powerful symbol of independence. I remember my mother saying that just knowing the Cavalier was in her driveway, gassed up and awaiting her command, made her feel more in control of her own destiny, even when she went weeks without actually driving.

“It’s a big issue with the growing population of seniors,” Roberta Habowski, who works for the Southfield-based Area Agency on Aging, recently told the Detroit Free Press. Habowski, who connects seniors with transportation services, acknowledged that separating the elderly from their cars is delicate matter: “It’s a difficult talk to have and not always well-received. How would you feel if I took away your car keys today?”

Listening to your doctor

The problem, of course, is that the right to drive and the ability to drive are two different things. Complicating that distinction is the fact that the lane markers between a competent driver and a dangerous driver are blurry. Knowing all the answers on the Secretary of State's written driving test, or even passing a cursory road test, is no guarantee of a safe, competent motorist. It usually boils down to a judgment call.

Whose judgment? Ah, there's the rub.

The new law lets doctors do the dirty work, sparing family members the head-on collisions that often occur when a son or daughter decides it's time to take the car keys away from Mom, or Dad. Elderly drivers may be more inclined to accept the objective, authoritative opinion of their doctors over the opinions of people whose diapers they once changed.

The new law, which passed in the dwindling days of the last legislative session, didn't get much attention. Issues such as Right to Work stole all the press. The Michigan State Medial Society was a key supporter of the measure.

My mother was barely out of the hospital, still wobbly from the accident, when she began asking how soon her Chevy -- i.e., her freedom and independence -- could be restored. My siblings and I danced around the question. We stalled, telling our mother that when she was ready to drive again, we would talk about replacing the Cavalier.

We made no promises, but stopped short of dashing her hopes entirely. We knew that our mother's driving days were over, but we didn't have the heart to spell it out. We hoped she would arrive at the same conclusion on her own.

It so happened that, in the aftermath of the accident, my mother's physical frailties began to pile up. Ultimately they spared us the distasteful task we all dreaded. We never had to tell her, "You're done driving" -- and she never said, "I'm done driving." It turned into a little game. She continued to speak of the day "When in I get my wings back …" and we never contradicted her. That tiny ember of hope wasn't as good as having the Cavalier in her driveway, gassed up and ready to take her to the smoke-free casino in Windsor if the spirit moved her, but it was better than nothing.

My mother never got behind the wheel again after the day the autumn leaves led her astray. She died three years later, with her driver's license still in her purse.

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