Wendy Stav checks to see that Harry Lester sits an appropriate distance from the steering wheel.
TU occupational therapy professor Wendy Stav is boosting the safety and skills of older drivers with CarFit, a national, community based program operated by AARP, AAA and state and local agencies to help older drivers “fit” their cars.
The American Society on Aging, in collaboration with AARP, American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), developed CarFit as a service to drivers in their 60s, 70s and beyond. Stav has been involved with the program since it launched three years ago.
Stav, a nationally recognized expert on older drivers, notes that driver-car ergonomics are especially important as people age, “A proper fit enhances driving skills.” she says. “It can also make the difference between life and death in an accident.”
The CarFit evaluation includes recommendations about safety belts.
Working with AAA Mid-Atlantic, Stav and a variety of partners—police, senior centers and public-health departments—have thus far seen over 100 senior drivers at only a handful of coordinated CarFit events in Maryland. The 20-minute process is free, and drivers participate on a first-come, first-served basis.
Stav, who trains other occupational therapists for the program, says she and her colleagues work with a 12-point checklist created especially with the needs of older drivers in mind.
“You have to remember that older drivers may never have learned how to properly adjust a safety belt, a steering wheel or a head restraint,” she says. “Those features weren’t part of vehicle interiors when they learned to drive 50 or 60 years ago.
“I’ve worked with people who don’t know how to operate their windshield wipers because they don’t drive in the rain. Likewise, they don’t know how to turn on their headlights because they don’t drive at night.”
CarFit’s occupational therapists teach the drivers where their safety belts should rest on their bodies—shoulder belt crossing at mid-clavicle with the lap belt low across the hips—as well as the proper distance from their breastbones to the steering wheel (no less than 10 inches).
Drivers also learn that their eyes should be at least three inches above the steering wheel to ensure
an unobstructed line of sight, and that the steering wheel should be tilted toward their chests rather than their faces.
The Handybar®, a tool that makes it easy for drivers to get in and out of their vehicles, is sometimes recommended during a CarFit evaluation.
“In an accident you want the air bag to create a cushion between your torso and the steering wheel,” says Stav. “An air bag can actually injure you if it deploys in your face.
Occupational therapists also check the positioning of gas and brake pedals as well as rear- and sideview mirrors, bearing in mind the client’s physical condition or limitations.
“We’re not judging driving performance or making decisions about who should or shouldn’t be behind the wheel,” Stav emphasizes.
“Our mission is to teach older drivers how to better use their vehicles. They, their passengers and everyone else on the road stand to benefit from CarFit.”