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Driving for Life

By Brian W. Simpson

The assistant professor of Health, Behavior and Society leavens theory-heavy discussions in courses like Program Planning for Health Behavior Change with examples from her research. Last January, I found myself in a Hampton House classroom, taking the program planning class as part of my MPH coursework. At one point, possibly while I was grappling with the slippery nuances of the Integrated Behavior Model, she mentioned that one of her projects focused on older drivers and safety issues.

I immediately wrote “older drivers” in my notes and circled it a few times. I knew there was a story there.

My father lived it. He was a great driver for more than six decades. A veteran Air Force pilot, he had an intuitive appreciation of safety. In his prime, he could fly 7 tons of metal at more than 600 miles per hour and bring it all home safely. Into his 60s, he piloted a Cessna 172 and other planes across the country. He was a natural pilot, with a keen sense of direction, astonishing mathematical skills and a smooth, sure touch at the controls.

All of those skills made him a safe, reliable driver. On car trips when I was a kid, he would say things like, “We’ll be there in 42 minutes.” And usually, he was right. Late into his retirement years, however, things began to change. He began having problems with his vision, hearing, reaction times and memory. (He would later be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.) He became something unthinkable: a dangerous driver.

He held fiercely to driving. When polite suggestions and blunt reasoning failed, we turned to his physician. We gave the doc the facts and asked him to tell my dad to stop driving. A good military man to the end, dad respected authority and obeyed.

It was a hard time for my family, recognizing that age had imposed unforgiving limits on our father. Our consolation was in knowing that he wouldn’t hurt himself or anyone else while driving.

As writer Douglas Birch explains in the story "End of the Road," we live in an aging society and this issue will only become more critical in the coming years. We can only hope that research by Vanya Jones and others will lead us to better solutions.