There was just one problem: Dave had towed the wrong dinged and dented Cobalt, one that belonged to another resident. Dave had the other Cobalt towed back, but then he had to leave for a conference. The upshot is that Roger is still driving. The family does have a radical option not available for most elderly drivers: They could notify the judge who presided over Roger’s license suspension, which would land him back in jail. But his sons are afraid that would kill Roger. “He’s been told over and over what the full ramifications are of his driving, and he understands,” says Lu. “We just live with our fingers crossed.”
Sometimes the problem is that the older parent is drifting away mentally, and facing this loss is just too painful for everyone. Writer Nancy Palmer’s mother, then in her 70s, was increasingly forgetful and had gotten lost driving home a few times. The family took her in for an evaluation and raised the possibility of taking away her license. “But she said the most poignant thing,” Palmer recalls. “She said, ‘I’ve been driving since I was 16.’ ” So the family backed off.
One morning Palmer’s mother got in her Volkswagen Golf, went to the gas station to fill the car, and disappeared. At midnight, the frantic family got a call from the police two counties away. They had spotted Palmer’s mother driving erratically. She refused to stop when a police car approached with a bullhorn. Finally, the officers blew out her tires with spike strips. That was the end. Palmer’s mother continued to ask for her car keys but her children told her the car was too damaged to drive.
Grown children who struggle to get their parents to hand over the keys can turn to the parents’ physician for help. But for one middle-aged woman, her 85-year-old father’s doctor turned out to be another roadblock. The woman’s father, who lives in Maryland, suffers from advanced Parkinson’s and freezes while behind the wheel, but he insists on driving himself to visit his wife, who’s in a nursing home. She begged her father’s doctor to report him to the state’s motor vehicle department. The doctor, though, said he’d only send a letter if the father agreed, which he defiantly did not. “It seems that the whole system is biased toward the rights of the driver, not the right of the public to be safe,” she says.
It turns out only a handful of states require physicians to report such impaired drivers, though in most states doctors who reach out to the motor vehicle department are protected from liability by a good faith exemption. The chief of the medical advisory board of Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration, former trauma surgeon Carl Soderstrom, would like to see physicians think about their patient’s fitness to drive as part of a health assessment. While doctors in Maryland have no legal obligation to report unfit elderly drivers, Soderstrom says “we believe you have a moral obligation.”
Gordon Yeager was one of those old drivers who just refused to get the message, and his story illustrates how difficult it is to take away the license of someone who’s determined to keep it, even in a state like Iowa with a strong monitoring program. Not that his son, Dennis, 52, was overly concerned. “I would ride with him to breakfast once in a while,” he said in an interview. “Truthfully, he gets older and you wonder. A car would come up, and I was thinking, ‘Is he going to stop?’ But he did really good.”
When Yeager showed up last Oct. 7 at his local motor vehicle division, the condition of the 94-year-old concerned the employees. He was told he needed to take a road test. He failed. In Iowa, flunking drivers are given a suspension notice and a temporary permit—they have 30 days to retake the test and can do so as many as three times. So Yeager drove home, planning to try again. Dennis Yeager says his father told him he was “set up.” The elder Yeager claimed that at an intersection the examiner instructed him to get into a right-turn-only lane, then ordered him to drive straight. “That is not possible,” says Kim Snook, director of the office of driver services for the Iowa Department of Transportation. “Never have we used tricks to fail someone.” Five days later, Yeager and his wife were dead after crashing into the Clapsaddles’ Mustang.
Charles Clapsaddle, 65, is now caring for his wife Barbara, 60, who has racked up more than $250,000 in medical bills. He says of their ordeal, “We’re not bitter. We’re unhappy the other couple was killed. But they should not have been out driving anyway.”