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Program tests seniors' driving skills

By Ed Brock

Evelyn Brown is nearing 80 years old and still driving strong.

She takes food to the less mobile as a volunteer for the "Meals on Wheels" program, does most of the driving when her husband and she take long trips and she is a regular student in the American Association of Retired Persons' "55 Alive" driving course.

"I try to be as careful as I can with these nuts on the road," Brown said.

Brown said she'd love to try a new CD-ROM computer program offered by AAA Auto Club South that tests the "driving health" of individual seniors. There's only one problem.

"I don't have a computer," Brown said.

The AAA office in Morrow has sold a couple of versions of the program, "Roadwise Review: a Tool to Help Seniors Drive Safely Longer," since they began selling it about three weeks ago, said Division Manager Lisa Weaver. She expects the sales to pick up when more people learn about the program.

"The ones who have bought it have used it at their children's home," Weaver said.

Designed with a basis in research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Institute on Aging, "Roadwise Review" tests eight areas of driving skills using videos and instructions.

The areas are leg strength and general mobility, head/neck flexibility, high contrast visual acuity, low visual acuity, working memory, visualization of missing information, visual search and useful field of view.

Leg strength is needed to control acceleration and braking. Head and neck flexibility is for checking blind spots and changing lanes. High contrast visual acuity allows the driver to identify pavement markings and detect hazards. Low visual acuity is for driving in situations with low visibility such as fog or rain. Working memory is needed for following directions and road signs and remembering the rules of the road. Visualization of missing information allows the driver to recognize hazards while seeing only part of the driving environment. Visual search is needed for finding and recognizing traffic signs and landmarks. Useful field of view means paying attention to what is happening at the edge of the driver's field of vision as well as what is going on in front of the driver.

"This type of screening is like a blood pressure test - something you check periodically to stay healthy," said Yoli Buss, director of driver improvement for AAA. "We believe it is important to screen for your driving health just as you would you physical health."

Since the 2003 incident in which 86-year-old Russell Weller accidentally drove his Buick into a street market in Santa Monica, Calif., there has been an increase in national concern about the safety of elderly drivers.

Because of their physical fragility, seniors have nearly the highest crash death rate per mile among drivers, after teen drivers. Also, people over 65 are the fastest growing population in the United States and by 2020 there could be more than 40 million licensed drivers who are over 65.

Packing up her "Meals on Wheels" lunches at the First Baptist Church of Riverdale, Brown actually shuttered to think about life without a car. She's not too fond of public transportation.

"I probably would have to rely on some people," Brown said. "I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't drive."

Public transportation options are limited in Clayton County, said Brenda Hall, a supervisor with the Clayton County Aging Division of the Parks and Recreation Department.

The Aging Division does offer a limited shuttle service through the Community Service Authority.

"They can go to the doctor, the drug store or the grocery store," Hall said.

Also, the service provides rides to the county's Shelnutt Senior Center and Adult Day Health in Jonesboro.

To qualify for the shuttle call (770) 603-4058.