William Cohen beeped his car horn, making those nearest jump and then laugh. Getting the all-clear from a nearby Albemarle County, Virginia, police officer, the senior driver took off for the parking lot exit in his black SUV.
On Nov. 18, local police officers spent the afternoon making sure senior citizens in the Branchlands retirement neighborhood in Charlottesville, Virginia, felt comfortable in their vehicles as part of a stop from the Car Fit Program that was organized by the Albemarle/Charlottesville TRIAD group and Home Instead Senior Care.
“I appreciate what you guys are doing,” Cohen told an officer before he took off in his newly fitted car. “Can I go now?”
Car Fit is a national program started by the American Society of Aging and was further developed by the American Automobile Association, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association. For the last week’s event, officers from the Albemarle County Police Department and the Albemarle, Charlottesville, Fluvanna and Orange sheriff’s offices came out to check the positioning of car seats, mirrors and steering wheels.
Charlottesville-Albemarle TRIAD President James O’Kelley said he was excited to bring the Car Fit Program into the area for local seniors. Praising the program’s necessity to make sure seniors are safe while driving, he said hopes to bring it to other retirement communities in the Charlottesville and Albemarle area.
“Some people are not too gung-ho about having the adjustments on their mirrors because they’ve been driving 70 years, but they’re doing pretty well,” O’Kelley said.
All of the details officers looked for ranged from the position of the steering wheel in relation to the driver’s chest, the positioning of the gas and brake pedals, the tilt of the steering wheel and the positioning of the car’s mirrors to limit blind spots.
Beverly Ann Via brought her car in for a fitting and was surprised at some of the suggestions she received, but said she felt more comfortable in her car. With her mirrors adjusted and her seat a little farther back from the steering wheel, she said she felt a little safer.
“I thought it was very helpful,” Via said. “I bought the car, but I did not get a lot of the ways the controls worked and I’m really appreciative of them taking the time to show me.
“I think I’m a little bit better than I was.”
While they just offered suggestions, the officers tried to nail home the difference those changes can make. When Albemarle County police Officer Joe George noticed one man was driving without a head restraint on his seat, he tried to convince him to put it back by explaining the dangers of whiplash.
“I think it’s great to give them a chance to drive safer,” George said. “We’re all guilty of it, too — not sitting safely in our vehicle or getting distracted — and if we can help five people out here today, that might be five crashes we’re able to prevent.”
The event also was overseen by Virginia Grand Driver, a public awareness program for seniors and caregivers. Nancy Lo, a coordinator with Virginia Grand Driver, was on hand to help coach local police through the Car Fit checks.
“A lot of seniors don’t know the new technology (in cars), like the mirror adjustments are supposed to be farther out so you can see the road and the lane next to them, as opposed to the sliver of their car,” Lo said. “They don’t know how to adjust their steering wheel down or move the head restraint.”
“We’re just trying to be informative,” she added. “It’s not an assessment of their ability to drive, but just to make sure they’re safe.”
Statistically, seniors are safe drivers, Lo said, stating that seniors only account for about 11 percent of all crashes. But the fatality rate is much closer to 20 percent because senior citizens are more fragile, she said. Making sure seniors are properly adjusted in their vehicles is one way Lo said she hopes more senior drivers can be kept safe.
Occupational therapists from Interim Healthcare also were on the scene to help make sure seniors felt comfortable. Amy Barnes said she rearranged her day’s schedule to be on hand to help seniors feel better in their vehicles.
“If it’s somebody with a mobility issue — a problem with walking or moving from place to place — (we’re concerned) with their ability to get in and out of their vehicle,” Barnes said. “There’s always a risk for a fall. If someone has to climb up into a high truck and they don’t have the physical strength or balance to do it, it could be a risk for a fall or injury.”
“Sometimes different medical conditions make it difficult to reach the steering wheel safely or see everything they need to see to drive safely,” she added. “We assess whether they need any interventions — there are a lot of gadgets that can be added into vehicles to help the person be safer and more independent.”
Charlottesville sheriff’s Deputy Nicole Petty said she enjoyed learning how to fit people correctly in their cars. She said she learned her own mother needed a seat belt adjustment and was looking forward to helping more seniors feel comfortable in their cars.
“Everything that we offer is just a suggestion,” Petty said. “They can change it all back if they want to. There were a few things that people weren’t receptive to, but for the most part, they’re very thankful that we’re here and they’re glad we’re helping them to be safer on the road.”
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