Louise Freedman recently carried her driver's license into the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and laid it on the counter.
"There was a man sitting behind the desk and I said to him, 'I don't want to drive any more,' and I handed my license to him," said Freedman, a Peninsula resident who is in her late 80s. "That was that. I'd put a lot of thought into it."
Freedman's decision followed a similar one by her husband Bill, a retired physician, about two years earlier. At the age of 93 he allowed his license to lapse.
"I did it for the safety of others, because I might possibly hurt someone by not being aware enough," Bill Freedman said. "I recognize that at my age, things like that can happen."
The couple's four daughters, who all live in the area and had encouraged their parents to stop driving, now share along with their in-home caregiver the job of driving them wherever they need to go.
The Freedmans and others who have chosen to stop driving for safety reasons will be honored Thursday, Oct. 23, at a free, public forum titled "Shifting Gears: When to Stop Driving and How to Move Forward."
The forum, sponsored by the senior services agency Avenidas, was sparked by a July 31 Palo Alto accident in which a driver in his 90s, attempting to parallel-park, accidentally accelerated onto the sidewalk outside the University Cafe. Five people were injured, one critically, and two required surgery.
No charges have been filed against the driver, a San Jose resident, but police referred him for an emergency re-examination with the Department of Motor Vehicles in which he had five days to pass a driving test or face suspension of his license. State law protects the driver's privacy as to the outcome, police said.
On the day of the accident, Avenidas social worker Paula Wolfson was in her Bryant Street office, just around the corner from the cafe. She and other staff members ran to the scene, and one of them helped attend to the injured, she said.
"The accident motivated me to start thinking about all the different dynamics in the decision to stop driving if one is not a safe driver," Wolfson said. "Accidents can happen to any of us, but why not look at what's preventable?"
A decision to stop driving is about an individual's fitness to drive, regardless of age, said Wolfson, who frequently counsels seniors and their adult children grappling with driving issues.
A common piece of advice is the "40/70 rule" that adult children reaching 40 should raise the topic with parents approaching 70, she said. But Wolfson believes the discussions should begin even earlier.
Families should consider agreeing on "advanced driving directives" just as they discuss and formalize plans for health care or finances in the event of incapacitation.
"If we do it with health care and finances because we worry about being incompetent at some time and wanting to protect our loved ones, it makes sense for driving, too," Wolfson said. "We can't hurt other people with our health care decisions, but driving decision-making is significant and a car is a lethal weapon."
With an increasing population of older drivers locally, "there needs to be a cultural attitude change, and everybody needs to do this," Wolfson said. "We so easily embraced the 'Friends don't let friends drive drunk' campaign. If we take away the word 'drunk,' we need to replace it with something else."
Eighty-seven-year-old Menlo Park resident George, who asked that his last name not be disclosed, climbs into his Ford Explorer every morning to drive to a standing 7 a.m. breakfast at the home of his adopted daughter in San Carlos.
George also drives regularly to art and physical-education classes in Redwood City and to watch tennis matches at several local venues.
"It would be like I'm in jail if I can't drive," said George, a retired business owner who is considering moving to an assisted-living facility to be closer to the adopted daughter, Amy Weishaar.
"But I'm thinking ... the worst thing that could happen to me is to hit somebody or hurt them."
George recently got a near-perfect score on a written DMV renewal test, extending his license into his 90s. He was not required to take a behind-the-wheel test.
"George thinks he drives OK, and he does drive OK, but he's slower," Weishaar said.
Palo Alto Police Lt. Zach Perron said accidents across the country, including the July 31 incident in Palo Alto, "in which there've been serious-injury collisions as a result of people who shouldn't be driving any more, have created a ripe environment" for conversations about senior driving safety.
"You can be the most with-it, sharp person, but sometimes you lose just a little bit," Perron said. "It doesn't mean you shouldn't be driving, but it does mean you should be having the conversations with people who know you and can judge your abilities, your mental acuity, your reaction times and things like that. It's not an easy conversation for adult children to have with their parents."
In Palo Alto, police make referrals to the DMV for re-testing about once a month, Perron said.
"It's an officer filling out a form and saying, 'We have concerns about that person's ability to safely drive their vehicle.' It requires them to go back to the DMV and basically pass a driving test in order to retain their license.
"It's not a common occurrence," Perron said. "The age of the driver is not determinative whatsoever."
At Avenidas, Wolfson said, "People worry about sinking into severe depression if they can no longer drive. Our job is to provide resources so that does not happen."
Speakers and panelists at the Oct. 23 forum will include Wolfson; Rosemary Robles of the DMV; mediation specialist Jack Hamilton of Learn2Resolve; neuropsychologist Sam Gontkovsky of Cognitive Therapeutics; transportation specialist Phil Endliss of Avenidas; City of Palo Alto police and fire officials; Elizabeth Edgerly, chief program officer of Alzheimer's Association; and Barbara Kalt, director of Rosener House.
The event, which will be from 3 to 5 p.m. at 450 Bryant St. in Palo Alto, is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. To reserve, call 650-289-5400.