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Are you safe behind the wheel?

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by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Sequim Gazette


Ensuring an older driver is safe behind the wheel of a car is vitally important. It can be a matter of life and death.

 

Linda Pfafman of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office says help is available, citing three different resources that can help drivers determine their fitness behind the wheel and improve their driving skills,

The first is CarFit, a 12-point inspection to ensure the driver is properly utilizing the vehicle’s safety features. A driving test (a “behind the wheel assessment”) conducted by a local driving school also provides useful information. Finally, drivers can undergo a clinic-based assessment to determine their physical and cognitive abilities as related to driving.

 

While those conducting these services provide an older driver with a data-driven assessment of their fitness as drivers, they also can provide the families of older drivers with a big hand. The decision to take the keys away from an older driver is a common source of friction within the family. A professional assessment can help by inserting a third party, one who is strictly objective, into the discussion. After that, “It won’t be such an emotionally charged discussion,” said Pfafman.

 


Safety lessons

CarFit is an educational program that offers older adults the opportunity to check how well their personal vehicles “fit” them.

 

It was created by the American Society on Aging and developed in collaboration with American Automobile Association, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association.

 

The program is designed to help older drivers find out how well they utilize the safety features of their personal vehicle, to highlight actions they can take to improve their fit and to promote conversations about driver safety and community mobility.

 

The centerpiece of the program is a 12-point inspection designed to ensure drivers are using the safety equipment of their car to its best advantage. For example, the steering wheel containing an air bag should be pointed at the driver’s chest, not the head.

 

After going through a CarFit inspection held in the Walmart parking lot last week, Sequim’s Annie Gilbert said, “As a matter of fact, I never even tilted it down. I never felt I had the need.”

 

Pfafman said the most common misuse of equipment is the misplacement of the head restraint, which should be raised to just below the crown of the head. That will prevent whiplash, a common injury in accidents. Most people fit the head restraint to the neck or lower area of the skull, “but in an accident you can grow four inches in a tenth of a second,” Pfafman noted. Pfafman also works with AARP to hold regularly scheduled driver safety classes. The classes are designed to help drivers stay current with laws, new vehicle equipment and new engineering practices (such as roundabouts).

 

To find out when the next Sequim classes are scheduled, call Pfafman at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office at 360-344-9721 or e-mail lpfafman@co.jefferson.wa.us. Pfafman says the CarFit inspections sometimes are scheduled to accommodate an individual driver. Call her to schedule a time with one of the volunteers.

 

 

Road trip

Tabitha Meadows, a co-owner of Northwest Driving School, says her company can provide a professional evaluation of a driver’s skills through an on-road assessment in one of the company’s dual-controls cars.

 

“We look at their reaction time and their knowledge of the road and regulations,” she said. The evaluation also includes testing for the physical abilities required to drive safely, including the strength to turn the steering wheel and to turn the head to look behind when backing up.

 

In the end, the pros at Northwest put together a report detailing strengths and weaknesses of the driver. The report includes a letter of recommendation — a professional opinion on whether the driver has retained the skills needed to safely get behind the wheel.

 

The evaluation process takes about 90 minutes and the cost is $130. For more information, call Northwest at 360-565-1000.

 

Clinical proof

Older drivers may be up-to-date on safety issues, and may have proper driving skills, but one question remains: Do they have the physical and cognitive abilities that allow them to drive safely?

 

Liz Klawitter, an occupational therapist at Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles, conducts clinic-based screenings of a driver’s mental and physical fitness for driving. “We look at the visual, perceptual and cognitive skills that go into driving.”

 

Participants must be referred by a doctor and must have had an eye examination within the past year.

The cognition tests include assessments of memory and concentration. As an example, Klawitter said, “We look at divided attention. As a driver you have to see multiple things at one time, route it all through your brain, and then act.”

 

Unfortunately, Medicare won’t pay for the assessment, but the cost is reasonable: somewhere between $125 and $150 for the entire bank of tests. Call 417-7728 for more information.

Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

 

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