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At 81, a driver is giving up the car keys

Jim Holechek of Baltimore has a present to offer his fellow drivers this holiday season: his story.

At 81, Holechek says he's giving up driving. He's fixed Dec. 31 as his last day behind the wheel.

"That's the last day that I'll drive unless there's an emergency or something comes up," he said.

His reasoning, his self-awareness, his courage and willingness to share will be a gift to many readers of this column, especially middle-aged people dealing with aging parents and older drivers struggling to come to terms with the limitations closing in on them.

It's a subject that hits close to home. Next month — if she doesn't beat me to the punch — I'll probably have to have "the talk" with a mother who is about the same age as Holechek. His name is likely to come up. Maybe others can piggyback on his example.

Holechek, who said he first learned to drive 65 years ago behind the wheel of his aunt's 1937 Chevrolet, said he began noticing a decline in his skills around June. He had a sign professionally made and mounted on his dashboard that said "Pay Attention."

He says it worked, but not well enough. There were a half-dozen near-misses. There were too many times when someone else could have been hurt.

The decisive incident was one in which Holechek was about to turn out of Eudowood Shopping Center and saw a car coming. He thought he was hitting the brake but stomped on the gas instead.

"That's the one thing that gets a lot of the elderly," said Holechek, a former public relations executive and author who many years ago wrote freelance articles for The Sunday Sun.

The mistake didn't result in a crash, but he's aware it could have. "I know I could kill people, and I don't want to do that," he said.

That — not the inconvenience of being unable to drive — was the fundamental motivation for his decision, Holechek said.

Unlike many elderly drivers, Holechek has a partner he can rely on to get him around in his wife, Pat.

"My wife is the same age and her brain hasn't started to affect her yet," he said.

Holechek said he also plans to look into the Maryland Transit Administration's Mobility service as an alternative for getting around. He and his wife have eased the decision by choosing to live in Cross Keys, close to services and transit, instead of in the far suburbs.

Holechek said he's been on the other end of conversations about when to stop driving.

"When I was a young man, I convinced my aunt and mother-in-law to give up their licenses after each had several fender-benders. They were 79," he said. "I knew when my time came, I wasn't going to fight it."

As hard as it is to have such a discussion with an elderly relative, it's even more difficult to deal with the issue when it's your own mobility and independence that are at stake. Thinking about the prospect of one's own slide into dementia is hardly a pleasing prospect, but Holechek said there have been enough moments of confusion and forgetfulness that he has had to consider the possibility.

It would be foolish for the government to set any arbitrary age when a person has to surrender his or her license. Some people might continue to drive safely well into their 90s. The power of the senior lobby makes it unlikely legislators would try to take the keys away from the Baby Boom generation.

But the elderly and those who care from them need to know that the deck is stacked in favor of continued driving even by those who are no longer capable of doing so safely. So individuals, rather than the government, will have to apply the ultimate moral test: the safety of other people.

Deciding the precise time one should hand over the keys is difficult. Once somebody gets to the late 70s, each birthday could be a time for review. Or, as in Holechek's case, a new year can be a time for making a decisive break. And certainly each health crisis an older person survives should be an occasion for review, for such events can set off an accelerated decline in skills.

There are certain to be some quibbles with Holechek's decision. Yes, he's given himself a few extra days to wean himself from the wheel. Maybe that's not ideal, but it comes close. And he's left himself the "emergency" out, though I'm sure he realizes that an emergency is precisely when you need a driver with superior skills.

He's still doing something difficult but right.

When an elderly person listens to the advice of a son, a daughter or a spouse and gives up driving, that is admirable thing. But when a senior comes to that conclusion without forcing others to initiate "the talk," that's downright heroic.

So thank you, Jim. Here's wishing you a happy — and much safer — New Year.

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