grumpy about old drivers

I popped over to our neighborhood Ace hardware Saturday morning for a couple things I needed on a little DIY project. I parked in a nice big space without a car on either side, as I’m wont to do. Away from other cars so that I don’t feel cramped and unsafe. I went and did my bit of shopping. I walked out the storefront doors and saw another car getting in my car’s personal space. That’s my Passat on the right. Hello new car friend.


As I walked over with one hand under my jaw to keep my mouth closed, I observed the friendly car’s driver blithely closing her door and heading off toward the store. La la la. I stopped her. She tried to walk past me. I showed her the unusual proximity of our cars. She was a little hard of hearing but she finally got it. She said, “Oh. I was paying attention to the driver side to make sure I had enough room with the car on that side.”

I was befuddled. How did she do it? How did she get so close without smashing anything?

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She must have been moving soooo slowly and carefully. How did she not notice she was rubbing inappropriately against my car?

We had a brief conversation. The lady (I’ll just call her Ann for no reason) suggested I call my insurance company. I answered grumpily. “My insurance company is irrelevant. I won’t be paying for anything. You need to call your company.”

She replied with a bit of shame in her voice. “I don’t know how. I don’t have a way to do that.” She pulled out her insurance card. As she handed it to me, she said sheepishly, “They told me I should always say it’s not my fault.” She looked me dead in the eye and added dryly, “It’s not my fault.”

That was weird. “But it is,” I answered, my grumpy ire rising. “My car was parked. It’s obviously your fault.”

She drooped. “I know. But they told me to say that.”

I started to feel pity for this sweet little old lady. I don’t know — and I’m not sure I care — if she was manipulating me. Ann was shorter than me. I’m always grateful to meet any full-grown human who’s shorter than me. It happens so rarely, and it corroborates the charts that say I’m in the fifth percentile for height, instead of in the zero’th percentile as often appears to be the case. Plus she wasn’t copping attitude. She just seemed a little addled as she kept muttering, “Guess I should have stayed home today.”

I called our little city’s non-emergency police number. As we loitered next to the cars, Ann fussed a bit and expressed a variety of concerns, but she was very pleasant. I told her not to worry about insurance until we saw how much damage there was when we separated the cars. After all, they were touching so delicately, like prepubescent teens holding hands. It occurred to me that we might just be able to get them apart without any major damage, but I wasn’t sure how. While we waited for the police to come, the blacktop got hot and Ann looked a little red. I suggested she take this opportunity to head into Ace and get her shopping done. She was happy to go. Meanwhile, I used my alone time wisely by taking photos and posting them on facebook.

A police officer finally arrived. Her son is in elementary school with Jesse so I know her. Nice woman. We chatted. She had a solution. She got in Ann’s car and turned the wheels hard to the left. The rubber on the right front wheel pushed on my car’s driver side and separated the cars by a couple inches. Brilliant. Then I crawled into my car from the passenger side and just pulled forward carefully. All done. Remarkably, there was not a dent to be seen, just a few new not-entirely-insignificant-but-also-not-material scrapes along the side of my car.

I didn’t have it in me to make this an insurance matter, to file a police report, or to even make Ann pay for a paint repair (she offered). She didn’t look like a wealthy woman. My car’s a 10-year-old beater that I’m probably replacing next year anyway. What’s a few more scrapes? When I told Ann not to worry about it, she hugged me full on. She was almost in tears. She held me tight and spoke earnestly into my hair. “Oh thank you, thank you. You’ll be on my prayer list tonight.” The police officer held Ann’s shoulder gently and asked her if she was okay, sizing her up to see if she should be driving. Ann was shaken and relieved and tired. I encouraged her to go home and get some rest, and also to drive very, very carefully in future.

I was ready to wipe my hands of this episode. I drove off quickly and got home to my electrical work, but I found I couldn’t leave Ann behind. My first instinct when I observed her advanced age was one of bias. Knowing nothing about her except that she was obviously having a bad Saturday, I had wondered immediately if she should be driving anymore. A couple friends on facebook had the same quick reaction to my post about this little bender. Indeed, Ann herself worried aloud to me about whether the police would take her license away. But is that fair? Would we have reacted the same way if she had been a mom in a minivan or a teenager or a middle-aged white man in a suit? I realized I wouldn’t.

As I struggled mightily with the electrical outlet I was working on, I got grumpier and grumpier. I’m supposed to respect elders, not shit on them just because of a minor parking lot bump up. On the other hand, I wondered if my compassion for Ann was looking in the wrong direction. What if she really is losing her faculties and next week she causes a terrible accident and hurts other peeps… I guess that would be on me since I let her walk away. Hmph.

Decrepit elders causing auto accidents is juicy news, like train wrecks and airline crashes. It’s easy to find reports that tell us elders “cause” more fatal car accidents than other age groups and ought to be grounded. Some pundits argue for refresher courses and tests to ensure a person can still drive capably. But maybe we all could use that.

I hunted about on Google. What I found suggests that the elder-menace on our roads is mythical. Check out this CDC fact sheet, published in 2011 and updated in 2013. The relevant factoid that caught my attention is this: “Per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase starting at age 75 and increase notably after age 80. This is largely due to increased susceptibility to injury and medical complications among older drivers rather than an increased tendency to get into crashes.”

So. They don’t really get in MORE accidents. They’re just more frail.

Elder drivers are less likely to drive under the influence than other age cohorts; elder drivers are less likely to drive in poor driving conditions; elder drivers use their seatbelts more; and elder drivers don’t drive as far. These are good things.

Compare elder drivers to teenagers. Check out the related CDC fact sheet on teens. Teens behind a wheel are much worse news than elders. Run for your life if you see a teen careening through your residential neighborhood. I know I do.

Sure, some old people shouldn’t be driving. But the same goes for some not old people. Why are we so quick to turn on elders? My neighbor across the street is a delightful woman whose husband died several years ago. She’s probably somewhere in her mid-80’s. Yes, sometimes her memory isn’t that great and she gets a little confused, but that’s also true for me. As far as I can tell, she’s just as pulled together as me in this regard. She and I have had several conversations about her (adult) childrens’ assumption that she would move to a senior community after her husband’s death. She doesn’t want to. She won’t until and unless someone makes her. She doesn’t understand why they would want to relegate her to living with a bunch of old people, without her independence and her home of 40-odd years.

What would she do without her car? I need to spend some time thinking about this. Having a little parking lot bump-up made me grumpy for sure. But realizing I have a driving prejudice against elders has made me even more grumpy. It’s just not right. Bah. I need to make a change.