Bill Gardner, the Illinois coordinator for AARP Driver Safety, teaches a class. Photo by Rob Hart

By Kelly Soderlund

Gloria Clancy, who’s been driving for 54 years, said she “thought I knew everything about driving.” But after a friend mentioned some new concepts he had learned in the AARP Smart Driver course, Clancy was intrigued about what she didn’t know.

She signed up for a two-day Smart Driver course last year at the Darien Park District Community Center and was amazed at what she learned.

“I’m guessing most people know the rules of the road, but it was good to get a refresher,” said Clancy, 70, of Downers Grove.

Clancy was one of roughly 15,000 Illinoisans who completed the Smart Driver course in 2016, said Bill Gardner, 76, of Pekin, the Illinois state coordinator for AARP Driver Safety.

The eight-hour course is available in person at facilities across the state. It’s also online, although the classroom environment is a much richer experience and the only option that provides people 55 and older a guaranteed discount on their insurance, Gardner said. The discount varies among companies, but is good for three years.

“The overall objective of this program is to keep the seniors driving as safely as possible, as long as possible,” Gardner said. “Seniors generally are pretty safe drivers, but after the age of 70 the fatality rate goes up, even though they’re driving fewer miles. That’s due to the fragility of the body. Basically, we get older and we don’t heal as well.”

The instructors cover the standard rules of the road, but they also discuss changes in the law, new vehicle technology and aspects of older peoples’ lives that may affect their driving, such as prescription medications.

“Different prescriptions have different effects on different people and we help them be aware of it,” Gardner said. “We advise people to keep a list of their medications in their wallet. They should understand when to take their medication and to be sure to test how they feel on a particular drug before they get behind the wheel.”

The instructors also discuss other driving habits that may turn dangerous.

“We talk about the ‘three seconds to death’: That’s how long it takes a driver to reach down and pick up a coffee cup and bring it to their mouth. It’s long enough to veer off the white line into a head-on collision or hit a curb,” Gardner said. “We also eat while we drive. It’s just kind of accepted as standard. If you’re eating a fish sandwich and a blob of mayonnaise falls into your lap, it’s a natural reaction to look down and see where the mayonnaise went. That’s long enough to veer off and hit someone.”

The instructors also discuss CarFit, a free educational program AARP helped develop, in which older people learn how to properly adjust their seat belt, seat and headrest, among other tips. About 10 minutes of CarFit instruction is included in the Smart Driver course, but people can also attend a customized 20-minute session with their own cars on a separate day.

The Smart Driver course is $15 for AARP members and $20 for nonmembers. AARP members who take the course online pay $19.95; for nonmembers the charge is $24.95. For more information, or to locate a Smart Driver course, go to aarpdriversafety.org or call toll-free 877-846-3299.

Kelly Soderlund is a writer and editor living in Bartlett, Illinois.

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