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Social responsibility: Taking away Dad's car keys?

Last summer, in an instant, 10 people were killed and 63 others were injured in my sunny oceanside community. There was no warning - the victims were shopping at a farmers' market, strolling on a street closed to cars; maybe you caught the aftermath on TV.

They were run over by a Buick with an 87-year-old-man - a model citizen, friends said - at the wheel. Witnesses said he drove through a barricade and into a crowd. The man, George Russell Weller, has pleaded not guilty to 10 felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. His lawyers say an undiagnosed heart condition caused the accident. He faces up to 18 years behind bars if found guilty.

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Several years ago, as my own father approached 90, I worried about such accidents and that my dad, licensed in 1927, might cause an accident. I believed this after dozens of erratic rides with him in the driver's seat, brushing up against curbs at 30 mph, taking corners from the middle of busy streets, and cruising past stop signs. I was scared for him - and for others. I wanted him out from behind the wheel. I believed it was time.

I'm talking about a man - then and now - who is anything but incompetent. He remembers - with precision - names and dates from long ago. He knows exactly what happened yesterday. He manages his own affairs, too.

But what he didn't know was when to pull over - for good.

So we argued. I couldn't find a soft-sell he'd buy. It wasn't a matter of inconvenience, because family members, with whom he lives, promised to take him anywhere, anytime. It was, to my mind, a matter of pride - his pride.

My father said, quite accurately, he'd had no accidents, no tickets. He reminded me he'd driven in most states and several countries and could anticipate trouble. But I knew what I'd experienced as his passenger. He should not, I told him, be doing this anymore.

I had no other cards to play. I couldn't burn his license; he'd get another. I couldn't disable his car; he'd have it fixed. I considered options that would shame and embarrass him: calling the cops and reporting a menace on the road; phoning his physician and pleading for intervention. I even thought of writing to his insurance carrier, anonymously, and announcing a clear and present danger. Maybe he wouldn't connect the dots back to me.

I lost sleep. Dad had always taught me to confront problems head-on. Don't lie your way out, he said. Ruses are for the weak. Overcome adversity with honor. So I didn't turn informer. I am my father's son.

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Exhausted, I left the subject alone, waiting for an accident to happen. Maybe then he'd come to my conclusion. He'd decide, once and for all, I was right. Basically, I was waiting for something bad to happen - though not too bad.

Months went by. Then my father arrived home with a crumpled fender. He said another driver had cut him off, forcing him into a pole. He got his car fixed, and he was back on the road. Weeks later, he hit a garage wall while backing out. He complained that storage crates blocked his view. Again, his car was repaired; he continued driving to the drug store, barber, and library. More time passed and more dings marked his once perfect car. Questioned, he said it was hit-and-run parking lot damage.

I braced myself for what might be next.

Then on his 90th birthday, my dad announced he was "retiring" from driving and turning in his license for a state-issued ID card. "I've driven enough," he said. "I don't want the bother."

Of course, I reasoned, he'd had one too many close calls. Maybe he was scared, some near-miss forcing his decision. Certainly, I believed, it wasn't my hectoring. I'd been passive when I could have acted because I couldn't turn stool pigeon. In hindsight, I was thinking of myself when I should have been thinking of my dad - and so many other fathers, sons, and families on the road.

Joe Honig, a former CBS and AP journalist, writes for television.


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