Monday, February 05, 2018

The little old lady from Pasadena

I've been running errands hither and yon today. (Stuff to do, places to go, about 30 people to feed tonight... yeah, anyway) As I was leaving the Safeway parking lot, I watched in speechless astonishment as a retiree with a dowager empress vibe and a big flowered hat that would give Queen Elizabeth a run for her money parked her huge boat of a vehicle -- not in a regular parking space, nor even in a handicapped parking space, but right smack in the entranceway to the store. Yes, blocking pedestrians, cars and access to the handicapped maneuvering space alike. She slowly and deliberately locked her car and shuffled magisterially into the Safeway. I realized that either her eyesight was so poor that she didn't realize she had just parked illegally, or she'd reached a point in her life where she had no craps to give any more about where she parked.

So, this brings a question to mind: when should people stop driving?

Hint: if this was your first car, IT'S TIME TO STOP DRIVING.
This may sound a little mean or ageist, but it's a serious concern in an era where much of the American population is at or past retirement age, and self-driving cars are not yet a thing. Because one's health usually worsens by small degrees, it's not always easy to perceive that one is no longer a safe driver. Nor is it fun to break the news to an older relative that it's time to hang up the car keys for good. My maternal grandfather had always been a leadfoot, but near the end of his life his eyes got so bad and his reaction times so slow that he became a menace on the road. He hit several parked cars, nearly ran over a pedestrian and should have had his license taken away. But even so, he fought hard to keep his right to drive. I think at some point he knew he was dangerous, but he'd always been bullheaded -- and as a disabled veteran, he desperately wanted to keep the autonomy that came with driving his own car.

I can see why. In the western United States, driving is considered more a right than a privilege. The West is spread out; there's a lot of space between towns, and it's not at all unusual for people to drive 50 or 60 miles one way to work every day. Outside the big metropolitan areas, public transportation can be sparse or nonexistent. (Amtrak is more of a joke than a viable transportation option through most of the West.) And not everyone can (or wants to) have a job that allows her to cocoon up and telecommute. Plus, in an era where local banks are closing branches and local supermarkets are calling it quits, there are many small towns where it's no longer possible to walk to the store or the bank. Western transportation infrastructure -- specifically, the lack thereof -- means Westerners will likely cling to their cars for a long time to come. And aging Westerners need transportation just as much as their younger counterparts do, even if they shouldn't drive any more.

We're very fortunate to live in an area with half-decent public transit. King County Metro is reliable enough that Captain Midnight can take the bus to work every day. There are continuing efforts to make the bus and ferry system more accessible to people with limited mobility. Even the much-maligned, insanely expensive Link light rail system should help people along its corridor get places when it's finally completed (which should be some time shortly before the Last Trump). But not everyone is so fortunately situated. People who know they should no longer drive, but who have no alternate way to get around, are really behind the 8-ball. They usually rely on the kindness of family members or friends to get them to their appointments, to the store, to work, to church -- or they simply become homebound.

That lady I saw at Safeway today shouldn't have been driving herself anywhere. She's become a danger to herself and others, probably by degrees. As mentioned, self-driving cars will eventually improve this situation for those who can afford them -- but in the meantime, what kinds of things could we do to help people keep their mobility, no matter where they live or how much they make?

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