The first time I drove a car I was with Dad, in his ‘34 Chevy. At 16, I could see over the steering wheel, but easing the clutch with the left foot while pressing the accelerator with the right was a coordination I did not yet have. As we jolted around our barnyard, Dad said, “You need practice,” and he lit a pipe of tobacco. He had more patience than most.
The last time I drove, was three years ago, at the age of 87. It took me awhile to decide to stop. Often we remember the mistakes of others longer than our own, and not many old Vermont guys will admit their mistakes, but I had my share.
On a hot summer day in 2008, I was driving on a mid-western highway. Suddenly I heard the rumble strip under the left front tire. This gave me a shot of adrenaline that lasted all the way to Lake Michigan. That day, I learned I needed to stop and nap before any rumble strip sang again.
Another lesson came after Thanksgiving on a trip from Vermont to Ohio. Heavy snow in Buffalo was coming east, so with a few flakes falling near Syracuse, I turned south and drove through Ithaca to Interstate 86 west. With little traffic, I sped toward threatening clouds and down a long hill. Yes, I was ticketed for speeding over 80, but I would not admit I was older.
As an independent, stubborn, senior Vermonter, I decided to stop driving. No serious accidents had occurred and no one had suggested or demanded I give up the car keys. I just came to that reasonable conclusion by myself. Although I believed I could probably drive with one arm, one leg and one eye, the danger was becoming apparent. What if my old pump quit while I was behind the wheel? My automotive projectile and I could do serious harm to other people.
After I quit driving, I discovered the benefits. First, and most importantly for me, was reduced stress! No more pills for high blood pressure, no more racing to the next red light or swearing at the “tail-gators” and “cut-offers.”
Second was appreciating the safe driving skills of my younger family members. Thanks again for reminding me to fasten my seatbelt!
Third was eliminating the costs and problems of owning a car. Fill-up? Oil change? Snow tires? Replacement? License? Insurance? Repairs? Where did I park? I don’t have to ask those questions or make those decisions anymore.
Family support has made my transition easier. I am fortunate to live with my daughter’s family and next-door to my son’s. It takes awhile to re-learn how to live with others, but I am thankful for the help of those who have given me rides, especially my daughter and grandchildren who took the wheel on my last annual trips to Florida. I do miss the winter weeks I used to spend there, and independent visits to the few friends and relatives who remain, but overall, it is really great to be “over the hill” and coasting!
Editor’s note: Our dispersed land use pattern and lack of travel alternatives make the choice to stop driving especially difficult in Vermont. Seniors who don’t have the benefit of living in a walkable town center or with supportive family, like Wilmot’s, face loneliness and isolation when they can no longer drive themselves. We welcome essays by seniors in different circumstances who have experienced this life-changing event—how they suffered or managed to adapt and suggestions for how to maintain a high quality of life without driving.
Wilmot W. Irish was born and raised on a farm on Irish Hill Road in Shelburne. After serving in the Korean War and a 38-year career in cooperative extension in Connecticut and New York, he returned to the family homestead, which he shares with his daughter and son-in-law.