In July of 2003 Melissa Cronin of South Burlington, Vermont decided to visit her sister in Santa Monica, California. On the day of her trip, she had a smooth flight and checked into her hotel without a hitch. She had plans to meet her sister later that afternoon, so to pass the time she took a walk to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market.
Melissa had been in Santa Monica for less than an hour before her life changed forever. As she reached for a peach at the busy outdoor market, 86-year-old driver George Russell Weller struck her with his car causing her life-threatening injuries.
Weller had accelerated through several streets that had been closed to traffic and sped two-and-a-half blocks through the market before coming to a stop. He killed ten people and injured 63 others that day, including Melissa. Investigators reported that Weller said he had accidentally placed his foot on the accelerator instead of the brake. At the time of the accident, he held a valid driver’s license issued by the State of California.
After surgeries and many months of therapy, Melissa physically has recovered, but she deals with mental and emotional issues. Before the accident, she worked as a neonatal intensive care nurse. But after being diagnosed with a brain injury, chronic back pain, and later PTSD, it became too difficult for her to keep up with the demanding pace of nursing.
A difficult decision
A few years ago, Melissa’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she knew it was time for him to stop driving. She notes, “He was clearly unsafe to drive, and I began to notice a lot of dents and scratches on his car.”
Melissa was her father’s health care proxy, so she gathered his medical records and sent them to the Registry of Motor Vehicles where he lived to begin the action of taking away his license. She says she ran into a lot of obstacles, and the process, she felt, was more complicated than it needed to be. After her father’s license was finally revoked, she experienced a lot of guilt. She knew it was the right thing to do, but she also struggled with the decision because she knew that his independence was gone.
“At first, I didn’t consider the full social impact and what it would do to his independence or how it would affect him. Now, I see that other side of it, and there’s no clear answer.”
Melissa says that after her accident, every time she saw an older driver who didn’t seem safe on the road, she’d get angry. But after dealing with her dad, she knew firsthand what a difficult decision it is to take someone’s keys away. She says, “At first, I didn’t consider the full social impact and what it would do to his independence or how it would affect him. Now, I see that other side of it, and there’s no clear answer.”
Advocacy and resources
Melissa says you have to be an advocate when it comes to senior driving matters. Alternative transportation is a priority when someone has to hang up their keys. Fortunately, her father had caregivers who could help drive him, but lots of seniors don’t have transportation lined up for when they stop driving.
“. . . you must have a plan in place for how they are going to get groceries, visit their doctor, or participate in any activity that requires leaving home.”
Melissa believes that if someone is capable of driving, of course, they should drive, but she also knows from her time as a nurse that there are physical issues that impact our ability to drive as we get older. “As we age, our reflexes change, we’re slower, and we’re more susceptible to distracted driving.” She adds, “All reasons to be concerned when it comes to being safe on the road.”
She feels we are better informed now compared to ten or twelve years, ago but there’s still much work to do around age and driving issues. “More and more people are writing about older driver safety. There are resources like AARP, National Institute on Aging, AAA, Centers for Disease Control, and national newspapers with columns dedicated to older drivers and the elderly population, and that’s a good thing,” says Melissa.
Perspectives and insights
When Melissa took the car keys away from her father, it was not an easy decision. But going through the process helped her feel a little more compassion towards the man who struck her with his car, and provided her with insight she needed to see the whole picture. “I think it’s important to act if you think a family member or neighbor shouldn’t be driving.” She adds, “I also know it’s an emotional issue that has to be handled with sensitivity, and you must have a plan in place for how they are going to get groceries, visit their doctor, or participate in any activity that requires leaving home.”
Melissa Cronin now works as a contributing writer for her local newspaper and is writing a memoir related to the 2003 Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Crash.