Miles To Go

I just bought four new “premium” all-weather tires, on sale, guaranteed for 80,000 miles. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Back home, breathing fresh air instead of brain-stifling tire store fumes, I did the numbers. I’m about to celebrate my seventy-ninth birthday. I drive a fourteen-year-old car with 111,000 miles on the odometer. I calculate I’ll be eighty-nine or older before I need new tires again — assuming my car and I are both still functioning — a lot to assume. Not to mention, electric vehicles will probably own the road by then.

But this is not a question of life expectancy, either mine or the car’s. The National Institutes of Health says that only twenty-two percent of women over age eighty-five are still driving. (Fifty-five percent of men — let’s just set aside the obvious conclusion that women come to their senses sooner than men.) Drivers over age sixty-five are three times more likely to get into an accident than middle-age drivers per mile driven, and — take a breath — three times more likely to die from a car crash. We older folks are simply more vulnerable.

Exiting the driver’s seat is, for a lot of folks, as traumatic as death itself. My dad, a Lutheran pastor, was one of the most patient, kind, good-humored, compassionate people ever to walk God’s green earth. Thus I gasped when he — well into his eighties — referred to a driver licensing examiner as “that Nazi!” Despite his several physical infirmities, Dad waged an ongoing battle with the Department of Licensing to renew his license. I don’t know if it was Divine Intervention or just weariness on the part of DOL bureaucrats — they finally gave him a provisional license, allowing him to drive a prescribed route between home and church, nowhere else.

Mother, on the other hand, quit voluntarily. Well, kinda. It was after she totaled her car. She was driving home from visiting Dad’s grave one quiet morning when she blew a stop sign and crashed into another car in the intersection. No one was injured, but it was clearly her fault. For the next couple days, she followed her usual course when she had a Big Decision to make: she prayed, then wrote out a pro/con list. Finally, she called her grown children, confessed her sad story and sadder decision. The administrator of the retirement community where she lived thanked her effusively. He hated having to demand that a resident hand over their car keys. I eventually asked her if she missed driving. “All the time,” she sighed. 

Last week a friend told me she’d been diagnosed with dementia. “Of course, I quit driving immediately,” she added. We talked about her cherished pickup truck, which is more than a mere vehicle. The truck, itself older than most drivers on the road today, was her partner in decades of adventure. “I bet you wish you could be buried in it,” I said. She chuckled and agreed.

I have long promised myself that I’ll make the choice to quit driving well before some poor family member is tasked with wrestling the keys from my grip. My current license will expire on my seventy-ninth birthday. I have an appointment to get it renewed next week. Most drivers can do that online, but in this state, you have to show up in person if you’re over seventy.

Quoting Robert Frost, “I have miles to go before I sleep,” but probably not 80,000.