Mary Louise Nelson, 82, and her daughter, Wendy Winningham, make each other laugh and finish each other's sentences. But when their conversation Thursday turned to the 86-year-old man who drove through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, there was awkwardness.
"I'm only driving within three miles of my home," said Nelson, who has glaucoma. "I don't have any trouble driving."
"She feels like she can," said Winningham, 49. "I feel like she shouldn't."
It's a role reversal, a twist on the battle of wills between the teenager eager for the freedom a driver's license brings and the fretful parent reluctant to turn over the keys.
This time around, the child worries about safety, and the parent complains of being babied.
On Thursday, as the death toll from Wednesday's tragedy in Santa Monica rose to 10, the perennial debate took on new urgency. In Southern California, where a car can be a lifestyle and a lifeline, it seemed to be all many people could talk about.
As the head of the California Highway Patrol called for stricter testing of drivers older than 75, sons and daughters told of hiding keys and disabling engines to keep their aging parents -- hard of hearing, thickly lensed, slow to react -- off the road.
Nelson pilots her enormous Olds 98 around Sherman Oaks to shop and run errands. A few years ago, her children told her they didn't want her to drive alone to visit them in Camarillo and Oak Park. They pick her up.
Winningham drove her back to Los Angeles on Thursday after four days in Oak Park, and they went shopping at the Grove.
Nelson said she didn't cling to her license just for convenience. "My children are so busy," she said. "I don't want to be a burden."
She also said she still feels bad, years later, about the way her family got her own mother to stop driving. Nelson's brother called the motor vehicle department in Pennsylvania and urged the testers not to renew her license. They didn't.
"I think it was terrible," Nelson said. "He should have let her pass that test and then tried to reason with her."
In California there is no provision for reporting a driver simply on the basis of advanced age, because state law considers that discrimination. Moreover, if the DMV receives a report about an unsafe driver, the agency generally sends the driver a letter, saying a complaint was received and encouraging safer driving habits.
If the report is filed by a physician, police officer or immediate family member, however, state law requires that the driver be retested, said DMV spokesman Steve Haskins. Dr. Larry Baraff, longtime associate director of emergency medicine at UCLA Medical Center, encountered such a situation Wednesday.
Until then, he had never singled out a driver for DMV review. But after overseeing the initial treatment of 13 people injured at the farmers market, Baraff reported a driver -- a man in his 60s with a form of Parkinson's disease who had been in a solo accident.
"I thought if I send this guy out and he does hurt anyone else, I'm going to feel bad," the doctor said.
In Alhambra on Thursday, Vincent Polito remembered worrying that his 88-year-old father, Frank, would hurt someone. Two years ago, he took action.
"I don't think he will ever forgive me for selling his car," said Vincent, 60. His father had been in two crashes in a year and could no longer read street signs. "It got to the point where there was an argument and he was totally against it.... I had to do it to save him and to save other people."
The elder Polito, who coached Little League baseball for 40 years and was known for his get-tough attitude, still has a valid license, despite little peripheral vision and one eye with only 6% sight. But now he must rely on others to get around.
"Oh, God, it's like taking your life away," he said Thursday after riding an Alhambra Senior Dial-a-Ride van to a senior center. "I can't just do what I want anymore."
Other gray-haired fathers and mothers said they were standing their ground. They expressed fears that the Santa Monica deaths would lead to unreasonable restrictions on their driving privileges, compounding the hardships and indignities of advanced age.
"Everybody that's come in the door today has been talking about it," said Alice Merritt, 81, who was volunteering at the Long Beach Senior Center with her sister, Julie, 72. They both drive.
"I'm worried. I'm 81," she said. Wednesday's crash "just may change everything. We'll have to take the written test [more often], we'll have to take the driving test."
Merritt said she knows her limitations. She said she never drives the freeway, never tops 40 mph in her Ford Focus, and had planned even before Wednesday's crash to park her car for good when her license expired in three years.
Center director Shelley Hellen said losing the ability to drive is extremely traumatic for most people. "You lose your independence," she said. "So people can really go downhill from there."