As drivers age, it can be hard for some to admit that their reaction times have slowed, their vision and hearing are less acute and their strength and flexibility have seen better days.
Fortunately Les Besser, 82, has found a way to carve through some of that resistance when he teaches driver safety classes for seniors at his retirement community in Carlsbad.
âI play tennis weekly and had one player say to me heâs been driving for 70 years and doesnât need to take a class. I told him âare you playing tennis as well as you did 70 years ago?â He said âof course not!â I said âI rest my case,ââ Besser said.
Earlier this year, Besser was trained as an AARP Smart Driver Course instructor. Since June, he has taught the eight-hour course to more than 100 fellow residents at the La Costa Glen retirement community.
On Wednesday, volunteers from the national CarFit program visited La Costa Glen to follow up Besserâs classes with a behind-the-wheel clinic. Two dozen Smart Driver graduates met with CarFit technicians who helped familiarize the seniors with the safety features on their own cars.
This included learning how to adjust mirrors to minimize blind spots, how to apply emergency brakes and flashers and the proper adjustment of headrests, seat height and seat distance from the steering wheel.
CarFit event coordinator Bob Vatz said San Diego County needs more volunteers like Vesser to step up because too many seniors are on the roads without the most up-to-date training.
âSeniors today need this because todayâs cars provide too many distractions,â said Vatz, who drove down from Long Beach for Wednesdayâs event. âThey donât always know how to use all the gadgets in their cars and it becomes information overload.â
CarFit was launched in 2006 after an earlier pilot program in 10 U.S. cities found that 37 percent of the 300 senior drivers tested had at least one critical safety issue needing assistance. These included sitting too close to the steering while or too low to have a line of sight at least 3 inches above the steering wheel.
CarFit is a program of the AARP, AAA insurance and the American Occupational Therapy Association. California seniors who graduate from these courses can save up to $90 a year on their insurance.
One of the first to show up for a CarFit test on Wednesday was La Costa Glen resident Ruth Weil. She has taken four AARP senior driving courses and said the classes not only lower her insurance rate, they also offer life-saving advice.
âI think theyâre great,â said Weil, as she prepared to pull her Toyota Corolla into the queue for the free 20-minute fit test.
Behind Weil in line was 73-year-old Patricia âPattyâ Burke, who drove up in her 1-year-old Tesla Model S.
âMy driving skills are as sharp as ever, but I think itâs good to stay on top of these things,â Burke said.
Besser said one of his student recently told him to remind everyone in his classes about the responsibility they have when they drive.
âHe told me to make (students) aware that weâre in control of a powerful, two-ton rocket when weâre out there on the road and that driving is a full-attention task,â Besser said.
Bill Julian, 88, finished Besserâs course just last week and said he found it an excellent refresher on how to be more aware behind the wheel. He enjoys driving his Toyota Camry every day, but admits that his reaction time has slowed and heâs no longer as comfortable driving at night.
âWhen I make some stupid mistake sometime maybe Iâll have to quit driving,â he said. âBut thank goodness for Uber and Lyft because as long as I have a smartphone Iâll be able to get around.â
In 2015, there were more than 40 million licensed drivers over age 65 in the U.S., up 50 percent from 1999. By 2030, that number is expected to grow to 70 million. Per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase beginning at age 75 and rise sharply after age 80, according to federal statistics.
One of the three CarFit volunteers on Wednesday was Cindy Garcia, an occupational therapy assistant from Fullerton. Her job was to assess the physical challenges older drivers may be facing and to offer suggestions.
For some drivers who have arthritis or other mobility problems that make getting in and out of cars difficult, she suggested sitting on a plastic trash bag which makes it easier to turn in and out of the driverâs seat. She also suggests rubber seatbelt extenders to ease the over-the-shoulder motion of pulling on a shoulder belt.
One short-statured woman at the CarFit event Wednesday was troubled by how her seatbelt was riding too high on her chest. Garcia showed the driver how to adjust the belt harness behind her chair so the shoulder belt rides at a lower angle.
Garcia said she observes driversâ balance and gait and she checks cars for any significant amount of dents and scratches, which could indicate vision or neurological problems.
Drivers who appear to have such issues may be referred to a certified driver rehabilitation specialist, where their driving skills can be tested on a simulator. Garcia said some older drivers are fearful of losing their licenses so they avoid events like CarFit. But she said they shouldnât worry.
âWe donât pull licenses or turn people in,â she said. âWe just want to keep them safe on the road because we care. When you feel like somebody cares, youâre more accountable.â
Besser said that one of his students this summer determined on his own that it was time to give up his driverâs license. Thatâs a huge sacrifice, particularly for men, because it can means a significant loss of independence.
Event coordinator Vatz, who is 92, said thereâs never been a law regulating maximum driving age because people age differently. As a result, programs like the safety course and CarFit help older drivers determine for themselves when itâs time to surrender their keys.
âThere are no hard-and-fast rules,â Vatz said. âWe see more women at these events because they live longer and tend to be healthier than men. But some women show up convinced theyâre aware of everything and some men are like a sponge eager to learn all they can. Weâre here to help.â