I’m a car guy. Have been since I started working as a mechanic in a garage in Fresno, California, when I was twelve years old. Learned how to do everything to a car, overhauling engines and transmissions, doing brake jobs, whatever. All day long I dreamed about getting my driver’s license. Eventually owned more than a dozen cars in my teens. Buy one, play with it a while, sell it at a profit, and get another.
Over the years, driving has been one of my favorite pastimes. In my teen years, drag-racing Friday nights on Fruit Avenue next to the tracks and informal (i.e., illegal) road-racing in the Sierra foothills was second only to ogling lovely classmates as my favorite activity. We practically lived in our cars as teenagers, from drive-in movies, to spur-of-the-moment sprints to Carmel, to an impulsive spin an hour down Highway 99 to Bakersfield on a warm summer night just for a cup of coffee. Oh, that’s right. Not “practically”. We actually did live in our cars, as cost-free places to sleep when we went to Santa Cruz for a weekend, saving our money for beer instead of a Motel 6.
[That's me on the back, with the flattop haircut...]
In ostensibly more mature years, I took great pleasure in owning and driving a raft of unique sporting vehicles—all convertibles, of course—some of which are now represented by their siblings in automobile museums. Patti indulged my habit, so we always had a station wagon for her and something windy for me.
And the driving highlight of my later years was pretending to be Paul Newman, a superior racing driver in his own later years when not acting in movies. In my mid-sixties, I enrolled in a Skip Barber performance-driving school at Lime Rock raceway in Connecticut and turned out to be the best all-around driver in my group of much-younger classmates.
To this day, I look forward eagerly to getting into my bright red Mini-Cooper “S” convertible with a stick shift, running it through the gears, hearing the crackling exhaust note, feeling like I am once again in my race-prepared ’52 MG with its high-revving full-race engine daring me to test our limits on the empty road sprawling ahead. My far-and-away favorite TV series is “Formula One: Drive to Survive”, and I can even spend hours watching the automobile auctions on TV as they parade the most enviable critters that ever rolled onto pavement.
[A few years later...}
So the prospect of giving up driving isn’t trivial to me.
But along with driving, I love older popular music. And not infrequently these days, I find a lyric from Kenny Rogers floating through my head:
“You got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run…”
Emotions tend to run strong in me. I easily get teary with joy when I see someone achieving their goal, and I easily get teary with grief when I see someone’s life debased by poverty, war, or self-destruction. I have a car related emotion that is even stronger for me than the joy of driving with the top down. I harbor a terror of harming someone with my car. And I have a real-life model of that horror that has haunted me for nearly fifty years.
Sometime in the ‘70s as I recall, an elderly man lost control of his car exiting a parking lot across from the University Store in Princeton, N.J., where I live. His car bounded across the street and mashed a young girl into a masonry wall in front of the store. The result was vastly too gruesome to recount here. But it was so gruesome that it seared itself into my head where, for nearly half a century, it has festered as a reminder I never, ever, ever, ever, EVER want to be that driver.
I am now an elderly man.
When driving to church the other morning, I was about to turn a corner into Palmer Square to find a parking place. My gaze was far up the block, searching for an empty space. But there was a woman stepping into the pedestrian crosswalk where I was turning. Patti and two of our adult children in the car shouted to alert me to her, before I might have crushed her.
When we got home, I sat us all down for a family meeting and posed the question: “Is it time for me to quit driving?”
Not an easy question. I remember how bitterly Patti’s mom felt disempowered when we made that decision for her, well before she was ready to propose or accept it for herself. But perhaps she didn’t have the gruesome image I harbor that might have eased her acceptance.
I do have that image, and it makes me fully ready to invite and accept the verdict that I am a danger to others when driving these days. I know my family knows my love of cars and driving, so I insisted that in responding to my question, they err on the side of precaution rather than salving my feelings. That launched a long conversation full of care, spirit, calculations, alternatives, wisdom. We reviewed my patterns of travel, both within town and on the long drives to Maine. We discussed the array of “driver assist” technologies new cars are armed with to automatically hit the brakes before hitting a person or obstacle. We named the network of public and semi-private transportation services in our town for those who don’t drive. We factored in my physical limitations (including a longstanding difficulty with walking more than a few blocks).
This was not the first time I considered giving up driving. Half a dozen years ago I began having brief spells of lightheadedness and disequilibrium, accompanied by some double-vision. Not a happy recipe for controlling a four-thousand-pound machine in heavy traffic at highway speeds. When a spell seemed imminent, I typically slowed to the side of the road and stopped until the condition abated—usually just a couple of minutes. But on one occasion it was so severe that I asked Patti to take the wheel and drive me to the nearest hospital.
I then began imagining myself without a car, and how I would get from Point A to Point B without imposing on others. Relatively easy in Princeton, I realized. But not in a place like rural Waldoboro, Maine, where we spend long summers at our farm and public transportation is non-existent. Difficult, but not insuperable. I figured I’d get an electric bicycle—a three-wheeled version to accommodate toting my golf clubs twenty miles to the nearest course.
And the truth is, I get turned on by having to come up with innovations. Have spent much of my life doing it for fun and profit. I enjoy dreaming up alternatives, researching them, calculating how to make something happen. It’s playtime for me. But eventually, those loopy spells abated, I laid aside my conjuring transportation alternatives, and I resumed driving confidently. Until I raised the question again just now.
The consensus among my family turned out to be that I’m not beyond repair as an elderly driver just yet, but they came up with some pearls of wisdom that I’m implementing with amazing effect. For starters, our son Jad noted that I’m always in a hurry, and that’s true. I hate being late. He reminded me that I have nothing but time on my hands these days.
But even worse, I realized that I bring my competitive spirit to driving; when I leave a locale and someone else there is simultaneously headed out for the same destination, I have an itch to beat them there. Juvenile, but true. Jad said, “Dad, just put a junior-high level motto on your dashboard: ‘No hurry’.” I have done that, and it actually works.
And I did another mind-game. I realized that when driving, my musings and gaze typically drift toward either interesting architecture along the way or—much more frequently—toward interesting cars swirling around me. High-performance cars, rare cars, even (embarrassing but true) looking to see whether that Tesla there has the face-to-face doorhandles that signify its being a Model X with the gull-wing rear doors, à la the jaw-dropping Mercedes-Benz 300SL I lusted after in my youth.
So I realized I needed to re-program my observations as I drive. And I did. Now when I start up the car, I consciously instruct myself to “Search for pedestrians!” To my amazement, when I set out behind the wheel to find pedestrians, I start calculating where they are most likely to be evident, and then discover I’m especially delighted when I win at my prediction—“Aha! There’s one!” It may sound silly, but it works. And for now, it keeps me driving. And keeps people on foot alive.
I’m also busying myself these days studying the details and ratings of the various car-makers’ “driver assist” technologies. I’m not relying on my own mind-games to protect others from me. I want all the help I can get. Belt-and-suspenders. Soon, I will reach a conclusion about which one is best at pedestrian detection and automatic braking, and I’ll buy that vehicle (even though it’s likely not to be a convertible—a heretofore inconceivable compromise for me!)
But I’m not counting on hi-tech assistance to forestall the inevitable deterioration of my acuity and skill as a driver. The day will come. You gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. I’ll hand over the keys to that new car the moment anyone—including me—thinks it’s time to fold ‘em.
Disruptions and adjustments notwithstanding, it will actually be kind of a relief.