The Loss of My Car Keys
Driving is a very complex subject: Responsible driving involves mastering a certain level of skill, using those skills responsibly through life, realizing accidents can happen to the best and the worst drivers, and deciding when it’s time to give up those keys. Deciding to stop driving is one of the hardest and most emotional times in life and can be a lightning rod in relationships.
I drove for almost sixty years, over 750,000 miles, owned 15 cars, and had four accidents. My record probably doesn’t seem so bad but read on.
Blaming the issue on my shoes
I was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy (which can be a result of Parkinson's, diabetes, genetics, other or all) in 2000. At first, I experienced a burning, electrical feeling in both feet that was manageable. As I progressed, I began to lose feeling in my toes. No big deal except for some balance problems and I rationalized no issue with driving.
Around 2014 and about the time of my Parkinson's diagnosis, I noticed a loss of feeling along the bottom of both feet. No big deal except I occasionally had my right foot slip off the gas pedal. No issue, I lied to myself. Just an unanticipated deceleration. Then, my right foot slipped off the brake and, for just a second, was jammed between the brake and accelerator.
Result: A slow-motion rear-end collision with an SUV stopped in front of me. There were minor scratches to the SUV and rather more damage to the prized sports car I was driving. I blamed it on a new pair of shoes but I think I knew my neuropathy was to blame.
I continued to drive, my neuropathy continued to worsen and my foot continued to slip off the pedal more often. I was using my leg and the console to approximately locate my foot in space and driving became more and more stressful. Two years ago, there was another foot jam with the brake pedal and the gas pedal at an intersection. It resulted in a slow-motion collision between a truck’s trailer hitch and my front grill. No damage to the trailer hitch and a small plastic grill break on my car.
I drove through the intersection, changed seats with my wife, we had a frank discussion, and I haven’t driven since. Would I have stopped driving without my wife’s intervention? I don’t know. Looking back on the last four years of driving, I feel incredibly lucky I didn’t hurt someone or myself. I also feel stupid.
Driving and my pride
Why did I continue to drive while physically impaired? Pride. I like driving and I have driven about 80 percent of the miles over the years. I was the driver in heavy traffic, mountainous roads, and snow and ice. I'm a guy. I'm stubborn. And I was embarrassed about admitting yet another physical failure due to Parkinson’s.
Fearing the loss of independence, I continued to drive. I was also under an assumption that even impaired, I was a better driver than my wife. She doesn't like driving on mountainous roads or at night and she's tense in heavy traffic. I thought I could power through and somehow there would be a magic fix.
Why I finally quit
My driving problem was physical. Other problems affecting driving abilities can be physical such as vision, spinal issues, arthritis, and joint issues. Unfortunately, cognitive decline or dementia can also play a role in driving impairment. Pressure about driving can also be from people/relatives who assume that a certain age means stop driving.
I finally quit because I was very stressed while driving and compensating. As my neuropathy progressed, physical compensation was getting harder. I was paying less attention to driving and more attention to locating my foot. I became more and more concerned that I was going to have a major accident and my wife was afraid both to have me drive and to ride with me. Luckily she is my alternative to driving and quitting driving was easier because of this. Many others have no such alternative.
Advice to others
What do I tell others dealing with the issue of driving or not driving? If you are having difficultly driving be sure to:
- Get your vision tested.
- Get a cognition test.
- Examine alternatives (friends, Uber, elderly transport options etc.) for getting around.
- Take a driving test from one of the independent resources in your community.
- Think about your responsibility to safely drive yourself, and the safety of loved ones, and others.
- Talk to a counselor.
Having been at both ends of this dilemma, giving up the keys is hard. Convincing someone else to give them up is even harder. Here are some options if you are dealing with someone who won't acknowledge a driving problem:
- Intervene rather than let the problem continue.
- Try all of the above steps in a helpful manner as possible.
- As a last resort, if you are in a position of authority, remove the keys and car.
- If necessary, report the problem to the DMV. They most likely will force a driving test.
Do you participate in a support group for PD?