My uncle Pete is a generous man who for years has given me, a non-driver, occasional rides to places hard to get to by transit. He loves driving and thinks he's good at it. In fact, he's an inattentive driver who has caused several minor accidents. But only last year did I realize just how bad he is. Pete, who's 80, was lucky not to be killed when he turned left onto a busy street without looking – right into the path of a truck. His car was totalled. Pete has now bought a new car, and I dread being offered a ride. He's very thin-skinned, so is there an excuse I can make to spare him the humiliation of being told that he's an unsafe driver? Or, if there's no way to avoid the harsh truth, how can I soften the blow?
You know, it's embarrassing to admit, but you know how nobody should drive drunk? I don't even really drive sober. Why? Because, like your uncle, I'm a horrible driver – the kind other drivers curse and shake their fists at and give the finger to in traffic.
I freely admit it. I'm absent-minded, mostly. The type of driver who might rear-end you (I've done this) because I let my foot off the brake when pulling my sweater over my head. The sort who would bend the passenger door off its hinges backing up when it was open, or scrape all the paint off the side trying to emerge from the garage, and so on.
So here's the thing: Insofar as it's possible (with three kids), I take myself out of the equation and let my wife, who is an excellent driver (and parallel parker nonpareil) take the wheel.
It raises eyebrows, sure. I've had my manhood questioned (my manhood takes it stoically). I've had my parenthood questioned. I don't care. Because what if I were, say, checking my hair in the mirror or doing something else dumb and wound up with a stroller under my front wheel? I couldn't live with myself.
See where I'm heading with this? Your uncle sounds like a menace – quite literally an accident waiting to happen. I think not only should you never get into a car with this man, for your own safety/survival, I believe you have a larger responsibility here – to attempt to persuade him to stop driving.
It's going to be tricky, I understand. I know a lot of people have their identity bound up in driving, and I hate to suggest any measures that would reduce an octogenarian's ability to get around.
But it sounds like it's time. He's had one quite serious warning (having his car "totalled" in an accident).
You say he's a sensitive soul. I'm sure he'll bristle, and it's a conversation neither of you will enjoy. But ask yourself which you'd rather got hurt: your uncle's feelings, or some poor, never-to-be-the-same family? What if, next time, instead of plowing into a truck, he were to turn into traffic and hit a minivan, killing some little kids?
My wife, Pam, is matter-of-fact on the topic of all three of our kids being killed in a car accident: "I'd commit suicide." Me: "What about me? I don't want that!" Her, shrugging: "Sorry, Dave." Me: "What about the other people who love you? What about your sister?" Her: "They'd get over it. And my sister would understand why I did it."
You don't want your uncle to be responsible for something like that.
Of course, put it diplomatically. Tell this prickly Pete something to the effect of: "I love you, Uncle Pete, and that is precisely why I say this. You've been in quite a few vehicular mishaps lately, and I'm worried one of them might not end well – that some harm could come to you or someone else."
Maybe help him make the transition to non-driver. I don't know where you live, but I'm sure there are contingencies and agencies to help people who don't drive get around. Sounds as if there's transit where you live. You could buy him a bus pass, ride around with him, get groceries and such, help him acclimatize to his new role as a non-driver.
You could even, I'd suggest (and prepare yourself for an ambient blast of hypocrisy on my part), get a driver's licence and schlep him around when possible – return the favour of all the lifts he's given you.
Basically, though, I think you owe it to your uncle, and anyone else with whom his life might suddenly and tragically intersect, to get him off the road as soon as possible.
Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.