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New AAA program checks driving fitness of seniors

AAA wants senior citizens to have their driving fitness checked regularly. The auto club announced a computer screening program Wednesday that lets them do that in the privacy of their homes.

The program, called Roadwise Review, assesses several mental and physical abilities essential to safe driving. It is geared toward those 55 and older but can be used by anyone, a AAA Auto Club South official said.

"Like checking your blood pressure and going to the doctor, you should periodically test your fitness to drive," said Yoli Buss, the local club's director of driver improvement programs.

The program tests eight abilities that AAA says have been shown to be the best indicators of risk among older drivers. Among them are leg strength, head and neck mobility and peripheral vision.

"Everyone focuses on vision, but people don't understand that a lot of other abilities also are used in driving," said Kevin Bakewell, a senior vice president with the local club.

The computer tests take a minimum of 30 minutes and require the presence of another person, because some are timed. After the tests, the program offers recommendations to address any deficiencies. Someone who fared poorly on vision tests, for example, would be urged to visit an eye doctor.

The program, in CD-ROM format, is available at AAA offices for $10 for AAA members and $15 for nonmembers. Bakewell said AAA also plans to provide it free to senior centers and retirement homes later this year. It is also considering setting up computer terminals in some AAA offices that serve large numbers of older drivers, so those without access to a computer can run the program.

Florida has nearly 4-million licensed drivers who are 60 or older. Those 65 or older accounted for nearly 18 percent of the state's 3,169 traffic deaths in 2003, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. The national average was 15.5 percent.

Last year, Florida began requiring drivers 80 and older to pass a vision test to renew their licenses.

Senior citizens' groups, including AARP, have long resisted such requirements as age discrimination. But AAA's computer program is a step in the right direction, an AARP spokeswoman said.

"We support AAA's efforts and any effort to increase driver safety, and any tool used to evaluate driving skills," Barbara Foelber said from AARP's national office in Washington. "We feel good about the efforts by AAA."

But some older drivers questioned how many will use AAA's program. "I think they might have a hard time getting people my age to take the test," said Jean Sharland, 80, a Hollis, N.H., resident who winters on Anna Maria Island. "No one wants to give up their license unless they absolutely have to."

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