A CLOSE LOOK AT THE UNIVERSAL QUESTION
I am slowly talking myself into giving up my car.
Though still, I honestly believe, a very good driver, I cannot escape a tiny, nagging question: Could I live with myself if I were involved in an accident in which someone is injured or killed? Even if it were clearly not my fault, could I avoid suspecting some failure of eyesight or reflexive response or yet unknown factor had played a part in an accident that might not have happened if I weren’t driving?
So I have begun this conversation with myself.
It starts with the memory of former conversations, one in particular. For years my three sisters and I discussed who would get our widowed father from behind the wheel of his car (none of us wanted to volunteer.) “Never had an accident in fifty years!” our father would declare. None of us wanted to point out the chaos in his wake. We were saved by a family friend who undertook to explain to our father how much money he could save on gas, insurance, repairs, etc.; he threw in a list of small town neighbors happy to be on-call chauffeurs. My father died 12 years later, at 90, never having injured a fellow creature.
This background conversation relates to the personal relationship I have with my 2001 Volvo S40 The Bud. Less intimate than my relationship with its predecessor LilyPad, a forest green 2000 Volvo S40 that was demolished by a 14-wheeler in 2020. The LilyPad and I were turning right from the right-turn lane; the 14-wheeler was turning right from the center lane blithely unaware of the legal maneuvers of that little car below. I consider it a testament to good reflexes that I was able to get out of his way after he demolished the front of the LilyPad and before he demolished the rear; the driver’s side and I survived unscathed.
But two more years have ensued. The conversation continues:
How certain are you that your reflexes are really as good as safety requires? Suppose someone’s beloved dog darts into the street and you don’t hit the brakes quickly enough. Could you live with that loss — knowing that a better driver might have avoided it?
And how about eyesight? I have, like much of the over-70 population, macular degeneration. Cataract surgery several years ago greatly helped my vision, but still. I have AMD and my eyesight is only going to get worse. At what point do I decide it’s worsened enough?
I think there is no magic moment when one can say, Today I should quit driving. Occasionally a driver receives a signal. My sister Helen, for example, was in her early 70s when she went to get the family car from its parking space in a Boston street lot. Instead of backing up a few feet as she had done countless times before she went forward, rolling to a stop against a sidewalk sign.
Everyone said, “Oh, that’s a common error. Your foot slipped.” “Nope,” said Helen, as she handed the keys to an attendant. “Someone could’ve been on that sidewalk. I put my foot on the wrong pedal. I am never driving again.” She never did.
There are, of course, good drivers in their 80s — I continue to consider myself among them — or perhaps older. There are plenty of bad drivers in their 20s or 30s. But those of us in the older category should be peculiarly attuned to the questions about when we turn from good to bad. It’s unlikely to be one lightbulb moment.
So we might all do well to have the conversation. What are the pluses? All that money I’ll save on no more insurance, gas, repairs (you might figure from the age of my vehicles that car payments are not an issue.) Parking meters. Garage fees. Fastrak fees and miscellaneous tolls. And even as little as I drive it, The Bud is not helping the environment; its namesake worked hard for the planet.
The minus? It comes in handy. There’s the convenience of being able to zip off to the park or the grocery — almost the only places to which I frequently drive. Freedom? A lot of drivers cite their car as a symbol of freedom; actually, I feel most free when walking a few miles, carrying stuff in my backpack.
I live in a city where public transportation is quite good for the most part; taxis and ride shares are everywhere. For what I’d save on the costs outlined above I could take an awful lot of cabs. My father’s small town had no public transportation — but neighbors beat light rail any day.
You can see the direction this conversation is going. Before my next birthday — still nine months off — when it’ll be time for driver’s license renewal and close to time for new smog check, registration etc, I think I will have taken the leap, gotten the airport-effective Real ID, sold The Bud and adjusted to a new life of being chauffeured when necessary.
I believe the car-free life will be just fine.