My body is not what it used to be,” said Walter Zweifler of South Orange as he pulled his car into the parking garage at the Leon and Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
“At 81 you begin to anticipate and prepare for the inexorable passage of time,” he told NJ Jewish News. “So I take extra precautions. I don’t drive into the tunnels and I don’t drive at night voluntarily. My vision is not as good as it should be.”
Zweifler was one of 20 seniors to take part in an Aug. 25 safe-driving program cosponsored by Eldercare Services at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and CarFit.
The safety session was designed to help older drivers find out how well their vehicles “fit” them — including mirrors, gas and brake pedals, and steering wheels — and demonstrate ways to improve comfort and safety.
“Through a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, we are addressing transportation and mobility issues for seniors throughout the community,” said the federation’s eldercare services director, Rachel Cohen. “We provide information about alternatives for people who are no longer driving and resources so that those who are driving will drive safely.”
CarFit is an educational program created by the American Society on Aging and developed in collaboration with AARP, the American Automobile Association, and the American Occupational Therapy Association.
“We are here to help mature drivers find their perfect fit,” explained Shani Jarvis, assistant manager of public affairs at AAA of New Jersey. “As we get older, natural changes in our bodies can make it uncomfortable, and sometimes difficult to drive. Our vision can go. Our flexibility gets a little bit less. Our range of motion can decrease. So what we are aiming to do is fit people to their cars.”
As she spoke, Jackie Stackhouse, a CarFit technician employed at Morristown Medical Center, thrust a ruler through the open driver’s widow of Zweifler’s sedan.
“I am checking to make sure that your chest is at least 12 inches away from the steering wheel,” she told him. “You’re perfect. Can you see comfortably?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Can you see your speedometer?”
“Yes. I can see it,” he said.
“Good,” she said.
A few feet away, another CarFit technician stood beside Beatrice Kallus’ car, testing how well she could perceive a car that might pass her from the left.
“My side mirror is out as far as it will go and I see half of you,” said the 81-year-old West Orange woman from behind the wheel. After her mirror was adjusted properly, Kallus drove away satisfied.
“I came here with another problem that they solved immediately,” she told NJJN. “The seat belt was cutting into my neck, and they fixed it for me. I never knew I could lower it.”
At age 82, Menasha Bromberg of West Orange said getting older has only caused him one problem behind the wheel. “I have to drive more carefully at night,” he said.
Bromberg left the lot with a suggestion that will keep him safer. “I learned where to put my hands on the steering wheel properly,” he said. “I used to put them at 10 o’clock and two o’clock. But now they told me to put them on the lower part of the steering wheel so the air bag doesn’t hurt me if I get into a collision.”
While older drivers are crashing less often than just a decade ago and most people can safely drive well into old age, according to AAA, there are still concerns about mobility, underlying medical conditions, and the effect of medications.
“We want people to start thinking about driving issues when they are around 55, and we want people to start thinking about fitting themselves to their cars,” said the AAA’s Jarvis. “We are going to outlive our safe driving years by about seven to 10 years, and we want to make sure people think about transportation retirement 15 years before they actually give up their car keys.
“There is no chronological age when one should stop driving, and we are not here to take anyone’s driver’s license away,” she said. “Driving is a function of ability, not age, so if you are 100 years old and you are an extremely safe driver, that’s fine.”
For Cohen, safe driving programs are part of a Greater MetroWest master plan.
“We are trying to help people to be as independent as possible and empower them to make sure what they are doing they are doing safely,” she said. “When we keep them safe on the road we keep the rest of us safe, too.”
She hopes to bring similar programs to the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains and area synagogues.
For more information about safe driving for older drivers, go to www.car-fit.org.