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86-year-old man drove at speeds of 40 to 60 miles per hour into a crowd of people gathered at an outdoor Farmers Market in downtown Santa Monica

05 January, 2005 by Peter Verhoeven

Lighthouse International, a nonprofit champion for all those with vision problems, wants our help. I say we should answer this call for aid.

Lighthouse people are beginning a five-year study to better understand driving transitions among people with vision loss.
Hidden behind those innocent-sounding words is this question: How do you get around and do your errands if you can not see well enough?

Sitting in the passenger seat alongside my mother, the car zipped past first one very red stop sign and then a second sign, equally as scarlet and forbidding. When I suggested that perhaps her driving skills had eroded, she called upon her favorite defense weapon, humor.

Oh, you are as bad as my friend Hazel, she said, laughing. She says those same things... Sadly, emphysema, followed by lung cancer, took this grand lady off the road forever.

As you read this, there are more than 70 families in California dealing with grief, understandable anger and nagging incomprehension. In the early afternoon of July 16, 2004, an 86-year-old man drove at speeds of 40 to 60 miles per hour into a crowd of people gathered at an outdoor Farmers Market in downtown Santa Monica.

In the words of a district attorney, the driver, wearing eyeglasses, “sent 63 people to the hospital and 10 people to the morgue.” One victim was an infant, just 7 months old.

“This was a tragedy of horrible proportions,” said George Russell Weller’s defense attorney, beginning an explanation that ends with this pathetic defendant believing his accelerator was his brake.

From the other side of the courtroom, the prosecutor said the suddenly out-of-control driver “missed parked cars, yet struck and crushed pedestrians.”

The unanswered question: How well could George Weller see that fateful afternoon?

In the Lighthouse newsletter Sharing Solutions, editor Carol Sussman-Skalka says, “The decision to stop driving is never easy ... a research study suggests a significant number of older adults with vision impairment continues to drive.”

If you want to see a depressed older woman, tell her she no longer can go to the beauty parlor or a church bake sale. Explain her volunteer days driving for Meals on Wheels are done. Watch as her face clouds over.

In too many of our big cities and small towns, public transportation is poor. This fact keeps once vibrant seniors prisoners in their own homes. And for now, solutions to these melancholy circumstances are hard to discover.

For the Lighthouse study, which is funded by the government’s National Institute on Aging, please answer, for those who still drive: What would lead you to stop driving? What practical and emotional consequences do you think your decision to give up the keys will have?

For those who have stopped driving: What were the key influences of your decision to quit driving? What has helped you adjust to your new life without driving? And what factors have made it hard or difficult for you to live without wheels?
Your answers can be written in narrative form or you can call the Lighthouse toll free number, 1-800-829-0500. Send e-mail to If you’re in New York City, drop your letters or tapes (audio or video) at the Lighthouse headquarters, 111 E. 59th St., New York, NY 10022-1202.

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