Senior drivers get safety tips in national AAA program

Jerry Bitner has been driving for 66 years. A car buff who also repairs and rebuilds vehicles, you'd think he would be the last person needing to be told how to adjust his side view mirrors.

But there he was recently, ardently accepting instructions from occupational therapy students at CarFit, an AAA-sponsored event designed to make older drivers safer and more comfortable in their vehicles.

In a recent Pittsburgh-area clinic, students from a master's program at the University of Pittsburgh went through a 12-point checklist to make sure that drivers were properly seated and belted, familiar with their vehicles' controls and safety features, and that mirrors were adjusted to maximize vision and minimize blind spots.

The drivers also got information about gadgets that help older people get in and out of their cars more easily, including a padded swivel seat and a leverage bar that attaches to the driver's door.

"If they fit better, hopefully they'll be able to drive safer and longer," said Terri Rae Anthony, safety adviser for AAA.

Bitner, 78, of Bridgeville, Pa., a retired engineer taking time out from a shopping trip with his wife, Judith, said he learned to drive at age 12 on a farm in his native Iowa. His first vehicle was a 1928 Ford Model A.

Behind the wheel of his current ride, a 2008 Volvo SUV, he listened as grad student Liz Mackay explained the proper seat position -- not too close to the steering wheel and airbags -- and checked on his knowledge of and ability to reach the various controls. Bitner earned brownie points by saying his first act upon entering the vehicle is always to buckle up.

Student Ali Damico stood behind and to the left of the Volvo and slowly walked forward as Bitner watched her in his side view mirror. Instructors discerned an oversized blind spot: The mirror was set at an angle that gave Bitner too much of a view of his own car.

Mirror adjustment is probably the most common problem identified by the program, Anthony said. Some drivers are unaware of all of their vehicle's safety features.

"Most people (who take part), we tell them something they didn't already know," she said.

CarFit is a national program developed by AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association.

"Driving today is more difficult than ever because of increased traffic congestion, longer commute distances, new technology and faster speeds," Anthony said. "Attending a CarFit event is just one way older motorists can ease the stress associated with driving."

She said AAA is eager to hold CarFit events for groups requesting them. More information about the program and senior driving issues is available at www.seniordriving.aaa.com .

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