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In a recent column, headlined Stuck behind an old turtle, Santa Monica, Calif., syndicated writer Susan Estrich described her experience in the grocery checkout line behind an older gentleman with three items in his basket. It seems he had a very difficult time managing his courtesy card, credit card and shopping list. She wrote, "Patience, I told myself. Someday, hopefully anyway, you're going to be old."

After finally getting through the line and heading out to her car, she admitted she "left the store feeling lucky. Lucky that I shopped at a store nice enough to take extra time with a very slow, confused gentleman."

But in the parking lot, she discovered to her dismay that the older gentleman was getting into the car next to hers and was obviously going to drive away! In the end, "He started, painfully slowly, to literally crawl out of the lot." She finished her story with the oft-repeated plea for stricter controls on older drivers.

But at what age do we become too old to drive safely? Is there an age at which drivers should be required to hang up the keys and find other means for getting where they need and want to go? When should mandatory testing be required? What are the signs that we are getting too old?

The AARP Driver Safety Program considers these questions significant enough to devote an entire section of its program, the eight-hour refresher course for drivers older than 50, to identifying the signs that we, or someone close to us, might need to quit driving. The section is titled "Judging Our Driving Fitness: Knowing When to Choose to Retire from Driving." It includes self-tests about judging our own driving behavior, tips on when and where to get more help in evaluating ourselves, and making accommodations for diminishing physical, mental, and emotional conditions.

Then it gets to the most difficult part: "Approaching Others About Driving Retirement." It's the hardest part of the entire course, because deep inside we all know someday we, too, will be old and may have Alzheimer's or dementia.

This brings us back to Ms. Estrich and her older gentleman. Yes, it appears that Mr. Senior probably shouldn't be driving. But who is going to tell him? Who is going to hold out a hand for the keys to his car? And even if some brave person does get up the courage to do so, how is Mr. Senior going to get to the corner Albertsons for his powdered onion soup mix?

I don't know what the Santa Monica public transportation system is like, but I do know what it is like in many communities all over America. Does "limited" sound about right?

The problem is serious, complicated and difficult. We are a nation of independent critters. We consider our ability to drive not just a privilege, which it is, but almost a right. Deny us that privilege, and we face our worst nightmare: dependency.

We need to do several things. First, we need to recognize that our status should be determined by who we are, not what we drive. No matter what our age, we may, with any luck, become Mr. or Ms. Senior, sometimes confused and befuddled by the complexities of credit and debit cards.

Second, we need to be able to talk with someone who is reaching a stage in life at which it is not safe for him, or us, to be driving.

Third, we need to have more and better public transportation, no matter where we live.

To do these things, we first need to be patient - with ourselves and with those who have reached an age we all hope to reach someday.

Then we might consider taking the AARP Safe Driving course to learn about ourselves and what we can do to keep our driving privilege for as long as it is safe to do so.

Finally, we need to support efforts to develop, maintain and make attractive an effective public transportation system in our community - encouraging a fully developed, comprehensive, affordable system of getting from here to there.

And it's not up to "them." We are "them."

G.B. Leatherwood lives in Spring Hill. He is the district coordinator and an instructor for the AARP Driver Safety Program in Hernando County.