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Class steers seniors to safety

Transportation: Age isn’t reason enough to keep the elderly off the road

Posted: May 23, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 23, 2011 1:55 a.m.

The California Highway Patrol will conduct a free four-week series of Safe Senior Driving classes at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center in Newhall from May 28 to June 17. The classes will take place on consecutive Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m.

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Driving — it’s an essential part of living in Southern California. Yet staying safe behind the wheel can become more difficult as age advances.

Beginning May 27 and ending June 17, the California Highway Patrol, Newhall area, will conduct a free four-week series of Safe Senior Driving classes at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center in Newhall, on consecutive Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m.

“The statistical increase of senior population over the next 10 years is going to double with the baby boomers. Hence, the largest concern we have is for seniors to be mobile and continue to be safe drivers,” said Officer Jon Lutz, CHP public information officer and class instructor. “We’ll present strategies for safe driving and how to remain at the wheel for as long as is safely possible.”

Such strategies include adjusting the vehicle in order to accommodate decreased flexibility.

“There are some physical challenges to becoming an older driver, such as being able to see the mirrors properly, or even reach back and get seat belt without issues,” Lutz said.

The class will present the latest “Car Fit” accessories such as shoulder-harness extenders, latches that allow for easier seat belt fastening or extenders for seat belts and mirror, pedal and wheel attachments.

The hazards of distracted driving will be another topic covered at the class. While distracted driving may conjure images of teens texting or talking on cell phones, seniors can fall victim to the practice in other ways, as Lutz illustrated.

“Vision changes, nutritional changes, lack of sleep and rest, these are all things that can affect driving ability,” Lutz said. “Also, self-awareness is key. If you don’t see well at night or during the day, seniors should limit driving during that time. It doesn’t mean you need to stop driving.”

Lutz will also encourage seniors to have clear, concise directions or a map when visiting a new destination, especially if they are not using a GPS or Thomas Brothers guide.

“Having a plan before you leave is key. It’s when you don’t have a plan that something happens,” he said.

Another area of focus will be a review of the new California driving laws, such as the difference between driving while intoxicated and driving while impaired.

“One term is strictly relative to alcohol — if you have a .08 or higher alcohol level — while the other is for drugs, including prescription drugs,” Lutz said. “I think you might be surprised at what could cause impairment: muscle relaxants, anti-depressants and pain killers. We’re not talking about stumbling, bumbling or hardly being able to speak. We’re talking about impairment.”

While the class is focused on seniors, caregivers and relatives are also welcome to attend — especially if a discussion of a senior ceasing driving altogether needs to take place. Reasons for this can range from reduced visual acuity, inability to get in or out of an automobile and mental decline, including forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease, that can prohibit safe driving.

“It’s important to have the ability to recognize, especially for those that are caregivers, when driving abilities have diminished to the point that it’s time for a senior to give up the keys,” Lutz said. “It can be hard to tell Mom or Dad, ‘You won’t be driving anymore.’ It has to be an open discussion and mutually agreed upon that it’s time.”

Not addressing this situation can lead to tragedy, such as the 2003 Santa Monica Farmer’s Market disaster, in which an elderly motorist killed 10 and injured 50, a horrific illustration of someone who shouldn’t have been driving at the time.
The class will offer information on alternative modes of transportation for seniors that no longer drive, such as the free fares given to seniors aged 60 and older on the Santa Clarita Transit bus routes.

Ultimately, whatever attendees take from the class will be positive, not only for themselves, but for the community at large.
“Public safety will be significantly improved by giving older drivers education to be more safe,” Lutz said. “The myth is get them off the road, when a senior might just need an update on driving skills and help with their physical abilities. This doesn’t mean they’re not good drivers anymore. They might just need to be able to adjust.”

The Safe Senior Driving classes will be held in activity rooms A-1 and A-2 of The Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, 22900 Market St., Newhall. For further information, contact Diana Sevanian, SCVSC health and wellness coordinator at (661) 255-1588, ext. 128. 

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