Ed O'Connor is one of the AARP Driver Safety instructors who Photo by Webb Chappell

AARP Driver Safety instructor Ed O’Connor, 66, reviews new technology, new road rules and adjustments motorists can make to remain safely behind the wheel.      Photo by Webb Chappell

By Ed Bell • When Bob Weinstein, 83, signed up for the AARP Driver Safety class four years ago, “I was this old geezer who thought I knew it all. But I took the class anyway. Boy, I learned a lot.”

Weinstein, of Centerville, learned simple things such as where to position his car’s headrests, how to safely position his hands on the steering wheel and how to better position himself to prevent injury if air bags deploy. Weinstein was so enthused about the program that he volunteered to teach the four-hour classes.

Geared to 50+, open to all

AARP Driver Safety is geared to motorists 50 and older, but anyone can attend the classes. AARP members pay $12 to attend classroom sessions; nonmembers pay $14. Online classes in Spanish or English are $15.95 for AARP members, $19.95 for nonmembers.

Ed O’Connor, 66, of Carver, who has taught the course for four years, said many people haven’t taken a driving course since they were in high school.

“So we offer a refresher reintroducing the rules of the road, explaining the technological advancement of automobiles and how we change as we age,” he said.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, most crashes involving older drivers occur at intersections. The course offers strategies and tips to avoid crashes, such as looking a block ahead and glancing to the right or left to look for approaching danger from cross streets.

O’Connor said advances in automobile technology have changed the way people drive.

“We first learned that pumping the brake was the best way to stop in an emergency,” he said of people who may have gotten their driver’s licenses before the Beatles hit the airwaves. “But with antilock braking systems, you press the pedal as hard as you can.”

He said older drivers are likely to experience vision changes or diminished hearing, and many are on prescription medications. “I tell my students to be aware of subtle changes to their eyesight or hearing,” he said. “We also urge attendees to learn more about their medication, its side effects and how it might affect their driving.”

O’Connor said the course also helps older motorists identify when driving may no longer be safe for them or others on the road.

“This subject needs to be approached cautiously,” he said, “because it involves the conversation about when to turn in the keys.”

He recalled a 90-year-old attendee who declared after class that she was still fit to drive. “We don’t make judgments about that,” O’Connor said. “But two years later she came back to announce she was giving up her keys.”

The course workbook offers questions drivers can ask themselves, such as whether they are overwhelmed by road signs, signals or road markings. The answers might suggest it’s time to quit driving.

More instructors needed

For O’Connor and his wife, Janet, 65, AARP Driver Safety is a family affair. As the volunteer state coordinator of the program, she has made the recruitment of more instructors a priority so that more classes can be offered throughout the state.

“We are looking for people who are comfortable speaking in front of a group and who are comfortable with basic technology such as computers and the Internet,” she said.

Eighteen volunteers taught nearly 1,000 Massachusetts residents in 85 classes last year. Prospective instructors must take the class and then complete an instructor training course. Instructors line up venues for classes and help recruit attendees. Classes are held in public places such as libraries and community centers.

To find a class, enter a ZIP code at aarp.org/findacourse. For information about becoming an instructor, visit aarp.org/drive.

Ed Bell is a writer living in Marblehead, Mass.