Independence: A Car is not a Car


“Losing your license is a life-changing experience.”

By Dave Riley

In 1929 the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte painted his famous oil on canvas, The Treachery of Images, which depicts a briar pipe. The work, which now hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is remarkable for its clean lines, spot-on hues and simple staging — and for the curious inscription near the bottom of the canvas. It reads: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Or “This is not a pipe.”

Oh really? Then what is it? A teaspoon? A door knob? A fire hydrant?

Of course it’s not a pipe, we realize at last. After all, you can’t fill it with tobacco and smoke it. It is a picture of a pipe. Like so many of Magritte’s works, it is a whimsical way of pointing out that what we perceive and what is real are often two distinct things.

Magritte’s painting came to mind recently when Mrs. R. and I were talking about the plight of a mutual friend, a lady in her eighties who had lived most of her life on the East Coast but who retired here in California. The lady — I’ll protect her privacy by letting her remain anonymous — had been having aMagrittePipe3-1 series of difficulties with the local DMV office, the place where we all go to get our driver’s license renewed.

First she went in on the wrong day for her test. Then there was an issue over whether she had to take just a written test, or had to get behind the wheel and demonstrate her driving proficiency. Finally she took the written test but failed, so the road test never came about. The DMV said she would have to give up driving.

She was devastated.

Shirley Witt, an acquaintance of mine who is the director of a bustling senior center nearby, characterized the lady’s situation succinctly. “Losing your license is a life-changing experience,” she said. If anything, Shirley’s comment was an understatement.

What does all this have to do with M. Magritte’s briar? Just this — to a certain group of seniors, a car is not a car. It is not a physical object. That group includes all the people who have reason to believe the DMV may revoke their driving privileges.

To them, their car is a concept, an abstraction that is crucial to their daily existence. A car is independence. A car is freedom. A car means being able to go places to buy groceries or keep dental appointments or see a movie or play bridge or golf or visit a friend. It means that, if the medical need arises, people can transport themselves or others to urgi-care or even to the ER. And at the frivolous end of the spectrum, it means that when, at the last minute, Mrs. R. realizes she’s out of oregano for an entrée, she can, spur of the moment, run out and get some.

Okay, it means all these things to someone who is, say 30 or 40 too, but if you’re 30 or 40, you don’t have to worry that someone at the DMV may be about to yank your driver’s license.

Losing your license is life changing? You bet it is.

As I have written before, I live in a community of slightly more than 16,000 seniors — average age: 78. Our community is large enough to support a modest transit system, so when I go to the super market I invariably see a half dozen or so residents sitting on a bench outside, waiting for the next bus. Thus our friend who can’t drive has lost much of her independence but she still has options, however limiting they are.

Not all seniors in America who have lost their license are so fortunate. Those who don’t live near a bus route or whose municipalities don’t have some kind of senior transportation system are at the mercy of friends and relatives. Of course, they can always call a cab and pay the consequent fee. And, unfortunately, they can also continue to drive sans permis, and an unknown number do.

I recall many years ago my Aunt Marion telling me of a scene where the younger members of her family stood at curbside, saying goodbye to a very elderly mom and dad as they left on a cross-country auto trip. Some were in tears, not because the folks were leaving but because they didn’t trust their driving and were certain they’d never again see the two of them alive.

That’s not an uncommon reaction. Many adult children of senior drivers eventually find themselves urging their parents to quit driving. They become aware of the folks’ loss of vision or reaction times or they suspect the early onset of dementia.

Then there are other offspring who take the opposite tack. They go down to the DMV with dad and pound their fists on the desk of some official who threatened to suspend dad’s license. (Here’s a reality check for people like that. Just ask them if they’re so confident of dad’s driving ability, would they let their children ride alone with him on a busy interstate or down a winding mountain road.)

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to a senior’s driving dilemma. It’s a top tier example of why growing old isn’t for sissies. As seniors we have to confront the dilemma and make some brutally hard choices.

By the way, are you a younger reader who thinks this really isn’t your problem? Well think again. Because some day, if you live long enough, you’re going to get there too.


You can get online help for yourself or your senior driver from AAA and AARP: and Many state DMVs also have programs for seniors.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.