Drivers Only: The Handicapped-Accessibility Problem We Don't Want to Talk About

We've been agonizing over whether guns are safe in parking lots. After a couple of recent accidents involving death and injury, in West Knoxville and then North Knoxville, it's not clear that cars are safe in parking lots.

It's easier not to think about it. Every car in every parking lot is a one- to three-ton machine with hundreds of horsepower. Each is operated by a mortal human with unknown background, abilities, and intentions. The driver might be 16, might be 97. The driver might be healthy, and might be very ill. One car, out of control in a crowd, can be deadlier than an assault rifle.

The tragedy at the Gallery Shopping Center came with a particular irony. The Tomato Head restaurant has earned several distinctions since it opened its original store on Market Square in 1990, but when it first opened, one of the most peculiar things about the place, in many Knoxville minds, was that it was a popular lunch-and-dinner destination that had no parking lot.

The idea, an old one that nonetheless seemed startling in late-20th-century Knoxville, is that you park elsewhere. That is, if you drive at all. Many customers and staff walk or ride bicycles. The Tomato Head is one of the main sponsors of the Smart Trips program, which encourages people to try to get around without their cars. They never tried a location with a conventional parking lot–oriented site, like that of most Knoxville restaurants, until opening their Gallery location in November.

The investigation is still underway, but contrary to some of our first assumptions, reports suggest the driver may have been a responsible professional, a middle-aged man with a serious neurological condition called multiple sclerosis. More than two million Americans have MS. Many of them are able to live almost-normal lives. Many drive safely. Thanks to research and therapy, the diagnosis is not as devastating as it used to be. But it's still a disease that progresses in sometimes unpredictable ways. One who's able to walk normally, or drive normally, this month may not be able to do so next month.

It's just one of dozens of neurological, or visual, or musculoskeletal conditions that can eventually affect one's safety as a driver. Some conditions are rare, like the one that forced my dad to stop driving at age 72. But collectively, with all the other "rare" conditions that could affect driving, they're not very rare at all. Dozens of medical conditions, some of them very common, some not easy to diagnose, some you may not know you have, affect our ability to drive. Many people who've been diagnosed with Alzheimer's still drive cars. Many of us will end up with some kind of impairment.

People have strokes or heart attacks or diabetic lapses while they're driving. When they do, they sometimes hurt others. That didn't happen much a century ago, when we got around on sidewalks, in horse carts, in streetcars.

Thanks to medical advances, we're more likely to live much longer with several varieties of common crippling diseases. But that also means the percentage of Americans unable to drive a car safely, already in the millions, is growing, perhaps yearly.

Even without serious illnesses, chances are none of us have reflexes quite as quick as they once were. Chances are we can't see quite as well as we could when we got our licenses. Am I a good driver? I'd like to think so. The last time anybody evaluated my driving skills was during the Nixon administration.

Frequent testing might help, but that, in itself, wouldn't be much of a solution. What can you do, once you get the verdict that you can't drive anymore? Hire a chauffeur? Find a nice chair in the TV room?

Most of Knox County is automobile-accessible only. Our favorite sorts of development, like the parking lot–oriented strip center, are mainly just for people who can drive cars.

Thanks to the extension of some KAT services in recent years and to the revival of downtown, you can live in Knoxville with some semblance of style without driving a car at all—but not without some major challenges. The bus, which is funded mainly via the city, isn't practical for most suburban and rural folks here. Hundreds of thousands of residences in the metro area aren't within a mile of public transit. Thousands of residences lack sidewalks, and thousands don't live within walking distance of any goods and services to speak of, anyway. It's a car culture.

The Americans with Disabilities Act demands elevators and ramps as an option for people who can't climb stairs. The idea is that no public place should be inaccessible to the disabled. But highways and parking lots may be the ultimate non-compliant facilities.

Any one of us might be especially grateful for the ADA's guidelines someday. We don't want to live in a world that excludes people who can't climb stairs. We do live in a world that excludes people who can't drive.

For people who can't drive cars safely, most of the world is handicapped-inaccessible. Losing that ability is terrifying to modern Americans, especially in communities that haven't provided other options. You and I both know people who've gone into denial about their declining abilities, and kept driving anyway. We don't know what to say. We haven't come up with another suggestion.

We're used to thinking of alternatives to driving in terms of reducing the demand for fossil fuels, reducing America's dependence on unstable or undemocratic nations, reducing air pollution. But even if we fixed all that somehow, our driving-dependent culture would still be a big problem, for reasons we've seen illustrated here in town in the last few weeks, serious accidents involving drivers who are elderly or impaired. Whether anybody's charged or not, we don't have to look very far to find the responsible party. It's all of us, and the assumptions we've made, as we've developed a community based on the premise that every American must drive a car.