Friday the 13th, Or, Why Some People Need to Lose a Driver’s License

Two things happened today, one lucky and one unlucky.

Lucky: My older sister sent an email to the family distribution list to announce that finally—FINALLY—my dad will no longer be endangering the pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, small pets, landscaping and signposts of Lewiston, Idaho. That is to say, she’s going to sell his car and he won’t drive any more.

Last week Dad turned 92. For years his hearing has been going, his eyesight has been getting worse, and his interest in following all those “suggestions” planted along his route (like, say, STOP, or 35 mph, or SLOW—School Zone) has been decreasing while the terror threat level has been increasing.

Some of his cognitive abilities have probably faded a bit, too, since he can’t tell you much about whatever little incidents are behind the numerous scrapes, dings and dents in his gold Honda station wagon. (Ever since my parents moved to Lewiston in 2001, I’ve told any friends planning to visit the town to flee for their lives if they see a car matching this description headed their way.)

My sister has been dealing with this for years, bless her heart. Even after she worked with Dad’s doctor and had a meeting with him and Dad that included some tearful moments and the clear statement that his driving days were over, Dad went right back to the dementia facility where he lives with Mom (who has vascular dementia, which I’ve written about here and here) and tried to load her in the car and take her for a visit to his younger brother. Luckily the on-the-ball staff at Guardian Angel knew about the situation and handled it with great creativity (lured him back in, snagged the keys, disconnected the car’s battery, and called my sister. Way to think on your feet, people!).

Now the car is physically gone so that won’t happen again, and Dad seems to have accepted it. I feel great certainty that lives have been saved (and I know for 110% certain that property damage will go down).

The email from my sister arrived this morning, providing an appropriate context for….

Unlucky: I was almost hit by a car today. Driven by an old man with gray hair who couldn’t quite meet my eyes at first after we both stopped, shaken. A man who made me think of my father.

Backing up, here’s what happened:

Leaving a great potluck we had at work and lugging a small laundry basket with my Crockpot, the remains of a batch of African Yam Peanut Soup (vegan AND gluten-free—I’ll post the recipe one of these days), the coffee travel mug I won as a door prize, and my backpack with cell phone, laptop etc., I looked both ways before stepping into the crosswalk.

This crosswalk is one of several on Spokane Falls Boulevard, a four-lane street that runs through the heart of the WSU Spokane campus. We’re looking forward to the new Martin Luther King Jr. Way that will help route some of the traffic to the south edge of campus and off this particular road, to help calm the traffic. As you might imagine, I’m looking forward to that even more eagerly after today.

As you enter from either direction, road signs tell you that you’re coming into a campus. Westbound on SF Boulevard, though, drivers have a tendency to slingshot around a curve as the street crosses over the Spokane River. They come shooting into the heart of campus, passing one crosswalk about a half-block before reaching the one I was using.

There’s a median we like to call the “Island of Refuge” in the middle of the road. I crossed the eastbound lanes successfully, paused at the median and looked to my right. I saw cars and trucks up the street with plenty of room to stop, paused, and took a step.

Over the years we’ve all learned to be a little bit bold in asserting our rights as pedestrians on this stretch. It’s like taming wild animals: make eye contact, speak in a soothing voice, but show them who’s the alpha.

I took another step as I looked to my right again, just to be sure we all agreed I had the legal right of way.

A compact car was bearing down on me without slowing a bit, doing at least 35mph in this 25mph campus zone.

The driver and I both realized this at the same moment. I heard the brakes screeching and the smell of burning rubber filled the air as I leaped back toward the median. The car was about three or four feet away by the time I started my backward move—close enough that I could have fallen forward and hit the hood with my hand, had I not been trying desperately to avoid any physical contact whatsoever.

When the car came to a stop—smack dab on top of the crosswalk I had entered—we both just stopped. I stood there, looking at the driver, who had his head down and didn’t seem to want eye contact. He finally rolled the window down, looked at me and said, “Sorry. I guess I was daydreaming.”

“Okay, well, this is a campus zone,” I said, not knowing exactly what to say. (Screaming “You stupid a-hole” isn’t really my style. I can hear all of you saying that, though, and I don’t disagree.)

He rolled the window up and pulled away, revealing a rear tail light held in by tape that demonstrates he’s been in at least one impact accident already.

I looked to my right again. Every other driver was frozen at the wheel, probably thinking they were going to witness a body flying into the air and hoping it wouldn’t make them late to some important meeting. I crossed the rest of the street, took a few steps, then realized I needed to stop.

I set my laundry basket down, bent over and propped myself up with my hands on my knees, breathing rapidly and realizing that I was shaking all over with a fine tremor—adrenalin rush. Two coworkers stopped and helped me out by carrying the basket to my building and giving me an arm to lean on while I walked, feeling pretty shaky all the way.

The man who almost hit me today may have kids somewhere wondering if it’s time to take away Dad’s keys. I have an answer for them. And I know we were just incredibly lucky that my dad didn’t hit or kill someone while he was still driving.

Have you talked with your aging parents about how you’ll all know when it’s time for them to stop driving? Have you thought about your signals for yourself?