When at-risk driver is your stepfather


NEW YORK -- My 86-year-old stepfather, Sam, who lives in Florida with my mother, is an at-risk elderly driver. Despite dementia, cardiac and diabetic conditions, a blind eye, questionable hearing and volatile personality, Sam drives ... legally!

A fatal collision involving Sam is our worst nightmare and, for my mother, a constant worry.

A year and a half ago, she was in the car when he turned at a busy intersection, ramming into an approaching vehicle. Although the other driver emerged unharmed, my parents were rushed to the hospital, where Sam remained in intensive care for 10 days and my mother in intensive care and inpatient rehab for six weeks.

A rude awakening

With the car totaled, we assumed that Sam's driving days were over. But upon his release from the hospital, Sam bought another car. The accommodating car salesman drove him to the showroom, and the car insurer blithely renewed his insurance.

My mother vowed she would never again ride with Sam.

At first this decision seemed possible. Because of her limited mobility, a home health aide was assigned to her for a few weeks and drove her wherever she needed. But once the aide was gone, my mother's resolve faltered. The van service that took her and Sam to doctors proved unreliable. Moreover, my mother, the caretaker and pillar of strength for those in need, was reluctant to ask for a lift. And all the while, her refusal to ride with Sam became an emotionally charged issue.

Eventually, she gave in to Sam's cantankerous protests and angry outbursts, telling my sister and me, "You have no idea what it's like ... I believe in fate. If I'm supposed to go in a car accident, so be it."

Tempting fate with Sam at the controls was not an acceptable option to us. We were ready to fly to Florida to take the car away. But we feared that Sam might retaliate against my mother with more verbal, and maybe even physical, abuse. We considered confiscating his license, but he might drive anyway or receive a new one without even a vision exam. Despite the growing number of car crashes and very elderly motorists, Florida drivers can renew their licenses by mail for up to 18 years without retesting.

We listened helplessly to my mother's promises that she would not go long distances with Sam and only out of necessity -- as if that would ensure her safety. Broaching the subject of her traveling with Sam upset everyone. We had to abide by her decision.

Meanwhile, the odds of a deadly crash escalate as Sam's physical and mental condition deteriorate.

On a visit, my sister and I accidentally discovered an accident report regarding a fender-bender implicating Sam that happened within the gates of their complex. A few months ago, Sam hit a parked car in a mall when he stepped on the gas instead of the brake. More recently, Sam was picked up by the police because he was lost and "driving erratically."

A plea unheeded

With this latest incident, my mother sprang into action. She called the police, begging them to revoke Sam's license. They said they were unauthorized to do that.

She asked the neurologist to report Sam's medical condition to the state. The neurologist claimed that his intervention would make no difference, but at my mother's urging, he wrote a note to the Department of Motor Vehicles. That department, insisting it could do nothing, referred her to the state's Medical Review Board, with which she filed a confidential report about Sam's inability to drive safely.

The revocation of Sam's driving privileges seems imminent. Will reason prevail?

Fredricka R. Maister is a free-lance writer who lives in New York City.

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