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CarFit helps keep aging drivers safer longer
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Many older drivers’ bumpers bear witness to a diminished ability to determine distances between the car’s exterior and other objects. “They kind of drive with their ears,” said one official. Above, Georgia Traffic Injury Prevention Institute Director Frankie Jones talks with a woman Tuesday afternoon in the First Baptist Church parking lot in Gainesville. - photo by NAT GURLEY

A trio of state institutions conducted a CarFit checkup Tuesday to help aging drivers get a better fit with their vehicles.

“It’s designed to make a mature driver drive safer, longer,” said Andrew Turnage in the First Baptist Church parking lot Tuesday afternoon in Gainesville. “That’s the entire goal of CarFit.”

Turnage is public information and education coordinator for the Georgia Traffic Injury Prevention Institute at the University of Georgia. The CarFit program was designed with input from the American Automobile Association, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association, Turnage said.

Fifty-three people drove through the checkup Tuesday and 58 on Monday, Turnage said, including some younger drivers.

GTIPI, which operates out of UGA’s Family and Consumer Sciences Extension and is funded by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety with federal money from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, used Monday and Tuesday mornings to certify 62 area Georgia State Patrol officers from Troop B, teaching them to conduct their own CarFit and roadside checkups, Turnage said. The troopers then tested their training at the CarFit sessions in the afternoon.

“There’s no reason for seniors to worry that troopers are looking for new things or trying (to) find ways to give them more tickets,” Turnage said. “CarFit is purely educational. There’s no enforcement component with it.”

Elias Segarra, 82, of Gainesville, drove his silver Kia Sedona minivan into the portico at First Baptist just as an afternoon rain shower ended. A handicapped parking permit hung from the van’s mirror, and a silver cane rested in the passenger floorboard. Trooper First Class D.J. Scott and GTIPI’s Jessica Anderson ran through a 12-point checklist, taking measurements, asking questions and checking Segarra’s mirrors and lights. Then Segarra drove down to the final checkout station in a lower parking lot where occupational therapist Amy Shaffer of Chattahoochee Technical College’s Austell campus was waiting.

“I learned that the steering wheel has to be at a certain angle,” Segarra said when Anderson asked.

That’s because of the air bag’s explosive force, Anderson said.

“You don’t want to get hurt by the air bag that’s supposed to save you,” Anderson said.

Segarra also learned how to adjust his mirrors, avoid the blind spot and to not use his left foot on the brake pedal.

Several cars on Tuesday had dents and scrapes on the corners of their bumpers. Not uncommon, said Don Bower, GTIPI project director.

“We see a lot of them particularly around the corners and on the front and rear bumpers,” Bower said. “A lot of scratches and sometimes some dents as a result of (their) decreased ability to judge distances between them and a fixed object. They kind of park by ear,” he said, laughing.

Older drivers are not necessarily unsafe drivers, Bower said. But there are life changes to adapt to.

“Everything from arthritis to limitations in the ability to turn your head around,” he said. “We try to adjust mirrors better so they can continue driving safely as long as possible. We try to adjust (steering wheels) so that if an air bag does deploy, it needs to be at least a foot from the driver. We see many drivers right up on the steering wheel — you need to get them back away from the wheel so when the bag does deploy, it doesn’t cause additional damage.”

The occupational therapists bring a different perspective to the problems an older driver can face, Turnage said.

“They have some great resources for the senior driver,” Turnage said. “There are devices on the market — cheap — that help, like mobility devices.” He noted the handles on seat belts that make reaching them easier, wedges that drivers sit on to elevate them and their range of vision, and a handle that attaches to the door strike plate much like assist bars in bathrooms. There’s even a lazy-Susan-like device that allows drivers to more easily swivel in their seats when getting in and out of the car, Turnage said.

“They sound a little trivial,” he said, “but put together, they make a tremendous difference.”

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