How I Convinced My Mom to Stop Driving
Everyone’s gotten that call. Or will, someday. That call from an unknown number, but your phone doesn’t label it Unknown, or even Scam Likely, which I always want to answer out of curiosity, but don’t for lack of time. But I always have time for a truly unknown number, especially from Germany, because that’s where my mom is from, and where she’s been since the pandemic began. My mom is a survivor. Of war. Of poverty. Of Communism. By definition, survivors get old, and then someone has to make the call.
“I have bad news about your mother.”
I’ve lived in big cities all over the world, but life has never been as perfect as it is since moving to Miami last year. At least, it appears perfect. It often feels perfect, as in too good to be true. Miami is big and busy, one of the few cities to thrive during the pandemic, with impossibly clear blue skies, a sun that seems to move a little slower for those who live here, and — like a neighbor who knocks on the door every few weeks at the worst possible time to borrow something, then invites themselves in for an hour — the occasional thundershower locals plan for but tourists never do. If you’re lucky enough to live in Coconut Grove, the canopy of palm trees are better than any umbrella, and wild peacocks and chickens stroll in slow, awkward steps down the side streets. Beach options used to be crowded or private. Now they’re all crowded, along with the causeways, bridges, bike paths, dog runs, parks, restaurants, cafes and rooftops bars.
My mom is a survivor.
I love it here. I love the political debates in America’s purplest city, where disagreement is framed by laughter and dancing and Spanish. I love the colors. Of the people, the clothes, the food, the cars. Has there ever been a brighter American city? Nothing is filtered or muted, especially the love that radiates from Miamians for each other, for their children, for the city itself. I love the manatees slowly rolling beside their precious little (big!) calves in Biscayne Bay, the sunlight shimmering off the water as I stand in a bathrobe on my patio and watch the sun come up. I even love the alligators my building warns me about, but who only appear in signs posted along the water’s edge. I don’t think they would like their cartoonish depiction, but my 3-year old Coco sure does.
I was quite sure my mother would love Miami, too. She’s been alone for two years. And it was about time she lived closer to family, in a place full of transplants, and culture, and life. Jump-in-the-water, dance-on-your-toes, put-the-top-down, sing-along-with-the-people-in-the-other-car-at-the-red-light LIFE.
But life here isn’t perfect, because reality never is, and in that way Miami is a city like any other.
Although I like to say I work from home, several days a week I leave the mainland and head to Miami Beach to test Argo AI’s robotaxi service. It’s a short drive but a world away. Mainland Miami — especially Downtown and Brickell, where I live — are dominated by cars. One might be able to live without a car, but the transit system can’t touch that of other world-class cities like New York, Paris or London. Some neighborhoods are walkable, but not necessarily to each other. If you want a truly car-free lifestyle, as in your freedom and happiness don’t depend on owning one, Miami Beach — especially South Beach — is for you.
Miami Beach is a great place to live, but traffic and a lack of parking mean cycling is often the fastest way to get around. Walking is next, and any four-wheeled vehicle is third. Traffic is the bane of all drivers, and because the mainland and beach are linked by only a couple of causeways, timing is everything. Driving to or from the beach at the wrong time might take an extra hour, and locals know that the right time isn’t only about avoiding rush hour, but anything else that might be happening, like a boat show or music festival. Knowing these patterns is what separates tourists and transplants from locals.
It’s also how I knew something really bad had happened on the morning of February 15th. I was four blocks from my South Beach office, driving East toward Miami Beach, when traffic slowed, then stopped. It was supposed to be clear, but police lights flashed at the corner of Purdy Avenue, where the Venetian Causeway meets the placid neighborhood of Sunset Harbor. Not just one pair of red blues, but many.
One pair is a fender bender. Many means someone isn’t coming home. My heart sank. I drove past the bicycle on the ground. A box truck was stopped next to it. There is only one detail that matters. The dead man was named Miguel Ortiz. He was a father to a 3-year old. I went to work and tried to imagine Coco growing up without me. My mother never knew her dad, and the shadow of his absence has followed her for 78 years. Ever since I became a dad, I’ve driven like the people I used to complain about: slowly. I don’t care if my friends complain, or if someone honks because I’m a half-second behind a light having turned green. I couldn’t live with the burden of hurting someone with my car.
The day after I saw Miguel Ortiz’s bicycle, I couldn’t drive at all.
Nine days later, on the night of February 24th, I was in bed scrolling through Instagram when I got a text that gripped my heart and stopped it. Someone had driven a car into a restaurant called Call Me Gaby, in the heart of walkable Miami Beach. I had just eaten there. A lot of my friends go there. I spent the rest of the night calling, texting, and waiting for replies. My immediate circle were safe, but a man named Gary Prince was killed. Six others, including a 3-year old, were hurt.
The driver was a 75-year-old woman trying to park her car. Instead, she allegedly accelerated in reverse. She wasn’t charged, but she will have to carry what she did for the rest of her life.
A few days later, I got the call.
“I have bad news about your mother,” said her best friend Priska.
“Is she ok?”
“Yes. But she must stop driving. You need to convince her to stop.”
“What happened? Did she hurt someone?”
“No, but her reflexes aren’t what they used to be. You need to talk to her. Trust me.”
Priska had been her best friend for 40 years. They watched Formula 1 together. They went on vacation together. They road-tripped across Europe together. If Priska was worried—
But mom was adamant. “I’ve been driving for 50 years. I’ve never had an accident. How will I live without a car? I drive everywhere.”
“I’m going to send you a couple of news stories. Do you promise to read them?”
“Then I want you to think about them for a few days. And I want you to come to Miami to visit me…and spend time with Coco.”
I sent her links to what happened to Miguel Ortiz. And Gary Prince. And that 3-year old. I also sent her a mountain of pictures of Coco.
Then I waited. Would she do the right thing? Only if I made it really easy. Only if I showed her alternatives, and that new ones were on the way. I like to say the future of mobility is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Well, that distribution is better in Miami than many other American cities, and what I’m working on is the icing on the cake.
“I’m sorry I took so long,” mom said a few days later. “I had some issues opening those links.”
Maybe there was more to what Priska had said than anyone knew. “And?”
“You’re right,” she said. “I’m not myself lately. I’ll stop driving. Maybe I’ll even sell my car. Will you help me? Do you know anything about selling cars?”
“Of course,” I laughed.
“I will come to Miami. I can’t wait to see Coco. Maybe I will stay. I need to be somewhere I don’t need a car. I don’t want to be like that old lady. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Come to Miami and you won’t be. We’ll find you a cute place in a walkable neighborhood.”
“Do you promise?”
Alex Roy loves driving, self-driving, and commuting in his Tesla. He is also the Director of Special Operations at Argo AI, host of the No Parking & Autonocast podcasts, editor-at-large at The Drive, founder of the Human Driving Association, author of The Driver, and Producer of APEX: The Secret Race Across America. He held the Cannonball Run record from 2006-2013. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.