September 7, 2011

My Question Is Not "To Be or Not to Be?" It's "To Drive or Not to Drive?"

Two weeks after my car crash, I now face the question most seniors dread  --  Is it time to give up driving?

To recap, two weeks ago I was driving to my usual  Monday bridge game at the Iona Senior Center, a ten-minute drive from my house. A block away, I approached a stop sign with a small van already stopped ahead of me. I applied the brakes... and the car speeded up. Shocked, I pressed my foot down harder and the car accelerated even more. The resulting crash sent me to the hospital for two days. Doctors determined that the only definite injury was a fractured sternum, but an MRI indicated possible neck injury. Yesterday, I had a follow-up X-ray on that issue.

I was very lucky to escape with so little injury. Here's a photo of what's left of my totaled two-month-old 2011 Honda Fit:

Last Saturday, the DC police officer who had handled matters at the crash scene came to my house and served me with an "Official Notice of Proposed Suspension" of my driver's license, apparently standard procedure in situations like mine. He reported that the van's driver had been hospitalized and released the same day. I was relieved to know his injuries weren't more serious.

I have to apply this week for a hearing, which I'll do tomorrow. I must also get a note from my doctor confirming my fitness to drive. I've talked with my internist, and he will provide that note. I've also asked my neurologist for a note, since questions might be raised about my Parkinson's Disease. (I don't have the tremors usually associated with PD. My main difficulty is balance, which is adequately addressed for now by the carbidopa-levodopa medication that most people with PD take.)

While I'm sure that I was pushing down on the brake pedal, I know that many people -- probably most, in light of my age (82) -- will assume I had mistakenly hit the gas pedal. My insurance company checked for reports of incidents like mine involving 2011 Honda Fits and didn't find any. I did a Google search with similar results, though I did find several reports about defective brakes on this model. 

I'm hoping the hearing will result in a decision not to suspend my license. Even with that license, my insurance company could decide to cancel my policy. Even if these two contingencies are resolved in my favor, I will still have to decide whether to voluntarily give up driving. 

Family and friends point out that, living where I do (the Palisades neighborhood in D.C.), I can walk to the bank, the post office, Safeway grocery store, CVS drug store, and a variety of good restaurants and carry-out places. They also point out that I'm on a good bus line that takes me into the heart of the city and within easy walking distance of museums, art galleries, restaurants, and the Metro subway system. My 26-year-old housemate is available to do some chauffeuring. I can easily afford taxis. And we have a Palisades Village group, patterned on the Beacon Hill Village model, in which neighbors volunteer to help seniors continue to live in their own homes rather than senior retirement residences.  

All true. Washington may not be as convenient as NYC, the ideal place to live a full life without a car. But I could manage. My basic needs could be met with relative ease.

What concerns me is losing the freedom I now enjoy... to act spontaneously. Would I visit the Politics & Prose bookstore -- as often as I do now -- if I had to call a cab instead of just hopping into the car for the quick 15-minute drive? That's just one example. There are countless others, all of which contribute greatly to the freedom I enjoy, and the quality of life which that freemdom brings me.
Despite this accident, I think I'm still a pretty good driver. I know most seniors would say the same thing. But my housemate -- who is not given to flattery just to make someone feel good -- has said he's surprised I'm still driving as well as I do. 

Even if my license isn't suspended or my insurance cancelled, this accident was a wake-up call on the advisability of cutting way back on my driving. The fact that I continued to press down on the pedal after the initial acceleration is a reminder that my reaction time isn't as good as it once was. 

I've already given up night driving, except for short trips on familiar streets. I avoid the Washington Beltway, the superhighway that rings the city. But I should just give up all road trips outside the metropolitan area and confine myself mostly to in-town travel. This past year, I made more use of the buses and subways. Up until my Parkinson's diagnosis two years ago, many of my in-town trips were by bicycle, so I hadn't focused much on public transportation. Now I'm learning to appreciate it. Since giving up biking, I've been walking more, a form of exercise I thoroughly enjoy, and can do more often.

I know the DC Department of Motor Vehicles has a list of approved safety courses. And I've heard that the National Rehabilitation Hospital, in the Virginia suburbs, has occupational therapists who specialize in assessing the driving skills of the elderly. I'll check out both of these resources.   

How About You?
I'd love to hear how other seniors are dealing with this issue.

1 comment:

Oblio said...

The on-board computer in your Fit should have recorded which pedal you actually pressed and where a malfunction on the part of the car, if any, may have occurred. Have the police dept. query the car's "black box" a.s.a.p.