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Yvonne Abraham

After side-swipes, 77-year-old driver gives up driving

WATERTOWN - Nancy Lawton’s epiphany, complete with blinding flash, came on the road to a friend’s house around Labor Day, 2010.

“Through the trees, a bolt of sunlight opened and blinded me,’’ she says. “I braked and went into the car in front of me.’’

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The other car was fine. Lawton’s Honda was totaled. So was her ability to keep denying what she knew in her heart: After a lifetime of liberty behind the wheel, she had reached the point where she shouldn’t drive any more.

Lawton, 77, a sharp, funny woman who laughs easily, especially at herself, admits there were earlier hints. That spring, her peripheral vision failing, “I started side-swiping cars, right out of the blue,’’ she says. “All of a sudden, ‘Thwack!’ ’’

She did it five or six times that summer, she recalls, and she just kept going, telling herself, “That was some other, evil, Nancy.’’ In retrospect, she feels bad about it all; “I was a felon, really,’’ she says, laughing with her daughter Ellen in her cozy Watertown living room Tuesday.

“We had no idea,’’ Ellen says. “She didn’t say anything to anybody.’’

“I knew that would be the end of me,’’ her mother says.

Lawton admits her epiphany didn’t take immediately. After her car was towed, she rented a replacement - and promptly hit a curb, flattening a tire.

“I started to get a sign,’’ she jokes. “I said to myself, ‘I think you’re pushing it, Nancy. You’d better quit while you’re ahead.’ ’’ It was only a matter of time before somebody got hurt. She gave up her license.

But losing her independence has been devastating for Lawton, a blow as monumental as losing her husband 25 years ago, she says.

“Oh, God, it’s been terrible,’’ she says. “You have to ask people to drive you places; you can’t be spontaneous. You lose control.’’

She can’t drop in to see her grandchildren on a whim, or leave parties when she likes. Trips to the supermarket are now production numbers requiring planning, not her strong suit. She never got around to driving on the “gorgeous’’ Zakim Bridge. “That’s crushing to me,’’ she says.

Lawton feels lucky. She is healthy, has great, helpful kids close by, and lives right on public transportation. But this is not just about getting around. For so long, her car has been bound up with who she is. During the 1970s, when she craved independence, it got her to her job as a receptionist. After her husband died, she showed up at a dealership to buy a car on her own, to prove she could. (She says the salesman, used to widows’ tears, pushed a box of tissues across the desk, “as in, ‘Let’s close the deal, we’re not havin’ a wake.’ ’’) Across the decades, whenever she felt low, she’d take a drive, listening to Steely Dan or Bob Seger, doing her own thing.

“The car had a mythic significance for me,’’ she says. “It was totemic.’’

Around the time Lawton was coming to her difficult decision, there had been a string of high-profile accidents involving older drivers, and calls for tightened license requirements for people over 75. That led to rules, approved last week, that better define an impaired driver. As sensible as those rules are, every license revoked under them will shut down part of an older person’s life, chip away at the people they were.

The remarkable thing about Lawton is that - eventually - she gave up that part of herself voluntarily. She often longs to be back behind the wheel. “The temptation is monumental,’’ she says. But the memory of those side-swipes stiffens her resolve.

Speaking of which, Lawton would like to issue a blanket apology to the town where she caused the most damage.

“I’m very sorry,’’ she says. “To all the people in Arlington.’’

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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