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Monday: Identifying Changes That Can Affect Driving

AOTA’s Older Driver Safety Awareness Week seeks to raise awareness and increase education about the aging driver’s options. Each day of the week, AOTA spotlights a different aspect of older driver safety.

We all experience physical and mental changes as we age. Some may be so minor that we don’t notice them, while others may interfere with daily life. Slower reaction time, night blindness, and pain and stiffness can affect driving skills but do not need to prohibit driving.

“As part of the aging process, some people experience physical, cognitive, and sensory changes that can affect driving. Medical advancements have more people living longer and able to age in their homes,” says Elin Schold Davis, OTR/L, CDRS, project coordinator for AOTA’s Older Driver Initiative. “When an ache or pain begins hindering driving ability, many older drivers are able to continue driving safely after making a few adjustments.”

For example, drivers who find it painful to rotate their body to reach the seatbelt can benefit from a cloth loop attached to it so they can pull the seatbelt on with only slight turning. Those with stiff fingers from arthritis can depress the seatbelt latch with a small tool that they leave in the car. Even getting into and out of the car can become much easier through something like a Handybar. (See Thursday’s “Equipment That Can Empower Drivers.”) Taking notice of changes such as having trouble seeing at night can be remedied by choosing to restrict driving to daylight hours. Those experiencing anxiety about driving in heavy traffic may find errands to be more pleasant if they plan to drive at times other than rush hour.

Another proactive way for older adults to enhance their safety behind the wheel is to be sure their car’s adjustments are best for them by participating in a CarFit event.

CarFit is an educational program developed by the American Society on Aging in collaboration with AAA, AARP, and AOTA and designed as a uniform, volunteer-run program available free of charge in local communities. The volunteer leaders include occupational therapy practitioners who use a 12-point checklist to ensure that each driver’s car is adjusted properly for the best “fit,” and that the safety features of the vehicle are explained, increasing the likelihood that they are being used optimally. The entire process takes about 20 minutes.

During a CarFit event, volunteers check for:

  • A seat belt that holds the driver in the proper position and remains comfortable while driving.
  • The tilt of the steering wheel and position of the airbag.
  • Plenty of room (at least 10 inches) between the chest and the airbag housed in the steering wheel.
  • A properly adjusted head restraint.
  • A clear line of sight above the steering wheel and dash.
  • Easy access to gas and brake pedals.
  • Properly adjusted mirrors.
  • Ability to see around the vehicle by reducing the driver’s blind spots.
  • The ability to turn the vehicle’s ignition key with ease or operate an ignition system.
  • Easy operation of vehicle controls including turn signals, headlights, emergency flashers, windshield wipers, and the parking brake, among others.

Conversations at CarFit events are geared toward educating drivers on ways they can increase their comfort and safety on the road in their own vehicles. Knowing how to adjust mirrors and the proper way to sit in the vehicle are just two examples of how CarFit can save lives. Attendees receive a goody-bag with resources, including information on driving self-evaluations, suggestions for addressing common problems, helpful websites, and driving rehabilitation programs.

“The CarFit check-up is intended to spark a conversation about taking advantage of all the safety features our cars have to offer,” says Schold Davis. “Occupational therapy practitioners and driving specialists are not in the business of taking licenses away but in the business of supporting people to live life to its fullest by educating drivers and their families about the changes that have the potential to affect driving and the resources available.” Practitioners also look at ability, not age, as a factor in driving safety.

In fact, participation in a CarFit event is free and confidential. The volunteers at CarFit never judge the person’s driving ability.

Recognizing changes in driving habits keeps everyone safer. By working collaboratively to support older drivers’ goals and the needs of the community at large for safe, accessible transportation, older drivers can make adjustments based on the health changes they may encounter and maintain transportation independence.

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