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Girl TORQUE: Older Drivers


I was gobsmacked the government all but ignored older drivers in its Safer Journeys document...

In 2007, nine percent of our road fatalities were drivers over 75, though that age group’s only 4.6 percent of licenced drivers. Our population is ageing; that number will grow, and by 2020, 14 per cent of road fatalities will be the over 75s.

Older folk may be more active and vital now than they’ve ever been, but their bodies are still more frail, more likely to be injured in an impact that would barely bruise their adult kids.

It’s a growing problem, and one that’s being shoved under the carpet, particularly since the ‘Safe with Age’ programme ceased to get government funding.

Apparently the cost-benefit ratio suggested it wasn’t working. Shame it used ‘all drivers over 55’ as a measure; I know not one person who at 55 thinks themselves aged – and few at 75, for that matter. No wonder the message wasn’t getting through.

The AA Driver Education Foundation is trying to plug the gap, initially with a clever little programme called Carfit. It’s already run in the US and being propagated by the American Occupational Therapist Association there.

The theory is that many older drivers haven’t bought, or adjusted, a car to suit them – so they’re not as able to control it, or see out, as they could be.

Grandpa dies; wee granny drives his car – doesn’t know the seat height adjusts and can’t see over the wheel so inevitably hits that bollard. Dad buys a new car, sits nice and close to the wheel – too close, and he’s injured by his airbag in a minor bingle.

Carfit is run by community groups, civic-minded businesses and the like. It takes no names – it’s not a driving test, after all – but navigates the driver through a 12-point car check, explaining what the car can do, how various items should be adjusted, and why. For example, that the ‘head rest’ is not there for comfort, it’s a restraint designed to prevent whiplash and should sit at a specific height and distance from your head – not in the boot. That the airbag should be 25cm away and pointing at your chest. That if you have your hands at quarter to three - or even 20 to four – on the wheel, an airbag won’t hit your arms and, better still, your shoulders will get less tired. That your seatbelt height might adjust, and if you can’t reach it easily there are inexpensive (or free) devices to help. That your mirrors can be adjusted to minimise your blind spot, and how to properly adjust them.

An occupational therapist attends because experience has shown that some folk are certainly capable of driving, but struggle to get in and out of the car – and there are exercises and compact gadgets which can help.

Several bowling club volunteers went through a demo process in Wellington. One chap sat atop the cushion he’d transferred from his previous car – he didn’t realise his new car’s seat height adjusted. Another had removed her head ‘rest’ and didn’t realise it could save her neck in a fender bender.

They were convinced Carfit would make a difference, and so am I. But I still live in hope the government will invest in our older drivers. After all, even MPs get old, if they’re lucky.

Meanwhile let’s hope the AA DEF gets enough interest to roll Carfit out as soon as possible; I look forward to the day you can pop to bowls, the RSA or the supermarket and have your fit to your car improved while you’re there.

Read more Girl TORQUE columns here.

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