In South Florida, an educational program offers tips for mature drivers to ‘fit’ their cars

A 12-point checklist compiled by CarFit looks at everything from the positioning of mirrors to the proper usage of seatbelts.

01/09/2014 5:14 PM

01/09/2014 10:15 PM

John Castro, 77, has been driving for 60 years, but he’s the first to admit that, even with all this experience, his road skills aren’t what they used to be. The technology on his Honda Civic confounds him at times, too.

So Thursday the retired Eastern Airlines worker decided to take his car to Pinecrest’s free program that’s designed to help older drivers find out how well their cars accommodate their needs.

“My reactions aren’t as good as they used to be, so I want to make sure I have everything else right,” Castro said. “Driving in Miami means that you always have to expect the unexpected.”

Created by the American Society on Aging — and developed with the American Automobile Association, AARP, and the American Occupational Therapy Association — CarFit uses a 12-point checklist that enables mature drivers to improve their safety and comfort.

During a 15-minute inspection, trained volunteers review a variety of issues with a driver: Can the driver see over the steering wheel? Are the mirrors set up to limit blind spots? Is the driver using a seat belt correctly? Is the driver seated back far enough to allow safe deployment of an air bag in case of an accident? Are the driver’s feet correctly positioned?

The participants are eager to follow recommendations, and often they learn something about their cars, too.

Castro, for instance, had never used his high beam lights because he didn’t know how to click them on. He learned Thursday.

Making adjustments can save lives. When CarFit was tested in 10 cities in the spring of 2005, more than one third of the 300 drivers had at least one critical safety issue, 10 percent were seated too close to the steering wheel, and 30 percent did not have the proper line of sight over the wheel.

Fran Carlin-Rogers, a CarFit volunteer who travels the state training other volunteers and helping organize events such as the one in Pinecrest, said the wrong mirror position is the most-frequent problem. But there are plenty of comfort issues, too. Because of joint problems and chronic ailments, some seniors experience pain when they reach for a seat belt. Others can get into a car but find it difficult to get out.

Most of these problems have solutions, and CarFit volunteers give drivers a list of community resources to help them. “In some cases, they can get off-the-shelf adaptive gadgets to make their lives easier,” Carlin-Rogers said. “It can be life-changing.”

Anne Karousatos, 79, took her 2008 Acura MDX to the CarFit checkup Thursday because “I’m older and I need to be more aware of what’s going on with my car.” She was relieved to find out that her equipment positions “fit” her just fine, but she also discovered something along the way.

“I learned that I needed to have at least 10 inches between the steering wheel and chest,” she said. “I didn’t know that.”

About 19 percent of Florida drivers are 65 and over, and that number is expected to grow as the population ages. It is estimated that by 2030 one in five drivers will be a mature driver. In the U.S., that means more than 30 million seniors will be behind the wheel in about 15 years.

Because age can affect vision, reflexes, and range of motion, various organizations offer programs to keep older drivers safe. Both AARP and AAA provide refresher courses for mature drivers. To encourage participation, some insurances companies offer discounts to drivers who complete these programs.

Last year CarFit volunteers saw more than 1,300 drivers in Florida, the most of any state, and the program may expand. “This area, from Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade, is a priority for us because of the demographics,” said Carlin-Rogers. “We want people to start thinking in terms of driver wellness.”

The Florida Department of Transportation began funding CarFit programs about two years ago, but it was only in 2013 that the program moved into Miami-Dade. The Pinecrest event was the third in the county. Several more are scheduled in Broward County in the next few weeks.

“CarFit is a program we’d like to expand as a way of increasing safety awareness,” said Carlos Sarmiento, Community Traffic Safety Program Coordinator for the FDOT in Miami-Dade. “Though it’s aimed for older drivers, in reality this is something any driver can benefit from.”

Castro agreed. “With the way traffic is in Miami, more people could use this. I’m driving off now feeling a little better and a little safer.”

For more information, visit www.car-fit.org

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