Thursday, January 14, 2010

I agree with Premier McGuinty, drivers should decide

It certainly doesn't happen often that I find myself saying "I agree with Premier McGuinty", but in this case, I do. All drivers - seniors included - must be responsible for deciding when it's time to stop driving, rather than tightening legislation, regulation and enforcement on the arbitrary basis of age.

I have a very personal experience with this matter. In 2006, my then 75 year old mother was still driving, still enjoying her independence, still enjoying people double-take and say "you don't look a day over 60." However, although I did not know it until as late as August, she had by spring already started losing a battle with pulmonary fibrosis. This condition results in the gradual decrease in lung capacity as the oxygen-capturing tissues lose their elasticity and ability to oxygenate the blood. To compensate, the heart works increasingly harder to maintain an optimal oxygen level per pump - as breathing slows down, the heart attempts to make up the lack by speeding up, until it's like running a never-ending race with no chance to take a break.

On the evening of September 1, 2006, after returning home from spending a week at my brother's house with his family, she came home, couldn't make it up the stairs in one go and, a little while later, her heart finally said "okay, we're done here." I eulogized her a week later. I had not known of her diagnosis until that summer, even though I suspect she had known of it as early as the end of 2005 (that's a long story, not for this article).

So, by spring '06, when it was becoming clear she was ailing, I initiated a talk with her about her driving. And she was okay with it. We parked the keys. It was a difficult conversation to have, but it was necessary, and it was right. I knew what driving symbolized for her - independence, capability... it said she was still young at heart, even while her heart was aging at an accelerated rate. As I've written in other articles, we live in a free society, and with freedom comes responsibility. Granted, there are going to be circumstances where people - of any legal age - make choices that demonstrate their inability to respect the freedom of others. We react punitively, and rightly so. But, the key is, we react punitively to something they have done, not anticipate and proact before they've done it.

Further, plenty of accidents occur with drivers who are not seniors. And there are plenty of seniors who are just fine behind the wheel - in fact, there are studies that find seniors to be safer drivers than younger people. The explanation is understood to be that seniors are less aggressive drivers who take less risks, which is good - we need more of that on the road.

I must also say, it can only be with the most heartfelt compassion that we discuss this in the light of a tragedy - when an innocent person dies and lives are changed forever, we want to "fix the gap" that we feel caused the accident, a senior losing control of her faculties who should not have been driving. I say compassion because there are innocent victims - the mother who died, the child and family she leaves behind. "Right" is no consolation for the pain that may never abate. This is the same compassion with which I said Dropping the charges was right. As a parent, I'd hate to bury either of my two children, and that pain is surely intensified when the likely murderer goes free due to lack of sufficient evidence. And, in these emotionally charged circumstances, it's sometimes not even prudent to attempt a rational discussion (which isn't to suggest that human emotions can't be a part of rational discussion). However, for those of us sufficiently removed from the situation who can get into the public discourse on the question, Premier McGuinty's position is, in my opinion, the right one.

Having said that drivers should decide, we as a society should not leave seniors alone to struggle with that decision. We, collectively, can be called to a renewed duty to share responsibility. Family members of seniors need to have the gumption to broach the subject. It's about caring for our loved ones, and for the fact that others too have loved ones. It's "win win" if we can encourage a senior who's losing their reflections and reaction times to retire from driving. In fact, families across Ontario should be having this discussion even before the signs start to show; it can be much easier to prepare before the fact by having the discussion when it's not imminent, and therefore less emotional and more theoretic. Then, when the time finally does come, it's easier to start the conversation with "hey, Dad, remember a couple of months ago when we talked about this? Here's what I'm seeing now, how do you feel?" and go from there. We are society, so the responsibility is ours to check each other.

I'm not a fan of running to the government to fix things for us. And, if we stopped bugging government for every thing, they might have more time to focus on the things we really need them to fix. For those seniors without family, perhaps it would be a retirement home having a seminar or creating a pamphlet to discuss the matter. Or, we as helpful neighbours can talk over the backyard fence or while sitting in Starbucks with our senior friends who may not have anyone else close to them. This is where we have the opportunity to express compassion, to reach out and make our society more caring, at the community level. This is the action we demand in response to a tragedy of this nature. A little effort on our part can go a long way to preventing unnecessary death, pain and suffering.

There's one more way to look at it. The more we ask of government, they more government is going to charge us to do it. We're taxed enough as it is - if we do this ourselves, it's one less thing to justify tax increases, and one less thing to divert tax revenues from services we really need to administrative costs we don't.

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