'Car Fit' program brings seniors up to speed

June 06, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN REPORTER

Josephine Montesion has been driving her 1995 Chevy Lumina for years. But it was just this week that the 83-year-old Ellicott City resident learned where the horn is and how to adjust the steering wheel.

"I've never had to blow the horn," she said.

Montesion and several other older drivers gained automobile insight by taking their vehicles to Centennial Park in Ellicott City for "Car Fit," a program sponsored by the county police Wednesday.

Several police officers joined a group of occupational therapists and spent the day helping seniors learn tips on operating their vehicles - including things they might have forgotten or never known.

Some did not know that their headrests and seat belts can be adjusted, said Myra Wieman, manager of safety services for AAA Mid-Atlantic. Others improperly adjust their side mirrors, increasing their "blind spot."

The drivers also were told about helpful gadgets such as specially designed seat cushions, a handle that can help them get into and out of their cars, or a plastic loop that attaches to the seat belt and makes it easier for arthritic or stiff arms to reach.

The county crew ran each vehicle through a 12-item checklist, covering everything from head restraints to foot pedals. Each driver took a walk around his vehicle to see whether he had the mobility and balance to safely operate the car.

"We're trying to find out how well they fit with their vehicle," Wieman said.

Holly Burnham, a police officer who provides community outreach programs for seniors, said the event was intended to enhance safety, not infringe upon older drivers' right to drive. Participants learned to adjust steering wheels so they can see the road better, to position themselves so a deployed air bag won't hit them in the face, and to operate emergency flashers.

"No driving ability is measured or tested," Wieman said. "This is all about fit."

Still, James Barlow, 84, a bricklayer, could not resist a little humor. He got out of his 1988 Ford F-150 pickup truck with his arms raised, turning his back and leaning against it as if he were imitating a police frisking.

"I feel like I committed a crime," he joked.

"How are you doin', sweetheart?" Barlow said to Wendy Stab, a Towson University instructor who led the team of occupational therapists. "Good thing I shaved this morning."

The Catonsville man cheerfully showed that he knew where all his vehicle's controls were and could easily operate them.

The team was concerned about Montesion's habit of operating the accelerator with one foot and the brake with the other. But because Montesion has been driving that way since the 1950s, Burnham decided against making a change.

The team also suggested that Montesion fix her emergency flashers because the button operating them came off in Burnham's hand.

Of more concern was how close the short woman sat to the steering wheel and the air bag. They showed her how to lower the wheel a bit and tried moving her seat back.

Montesion said she doesn't drive long distances anymore.

"I'm 10 minutes to my daughter's house, 10 minutes to church and 15 minutes to the Elkridge Senior Center," she said. "We're very active."

Asked if she participates in exercise sessions there that might help her push her foot down on the stubborn emergency brake, Montesion said she just watches. "We're old people," she said. "We're not young people."

The county will conduct another 'Car Fit' event July 11 at Glenwood Community Center.

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