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On the Road to Safer Driving

Hal Dieterle, of Tucson, has taught more than three dozen AARP Driver Safety classes since 2009. Photo by Chris Hinkle

By Miriam Davidson

A few years back, Hal Dieterle, who has taught AARP Driver Safety courses around Tucson since 2009, noticed he was no longer getting an insurance discount for having attended the class.

“I asked my agent, and he said, ‘You have to take the class to get the discount.’ I said, ‘But I teach the class.’ So he said, ‘I guess you can have it, then.’ ”

With more than three dozen classes under his belt, Dieterle, 72, of Saddlebrooke, deserves the discount. He is one of 88 volunteer driver safety instructors in Arizona who taught a total of 502 classes to 5,510 people in 2014.

Since 1979, AARP has offered programs aimed at helping drivers 50 and older sharpen their skills and learn new rules and technology. The newest version, AARP Smart Driver, which debuted in January 2014, is based on extensive research at Eastern Virginia Medical School and input from volunteers and experts on aging. The Smart Driver course, also available online, is among several AARP Driver Safety programs, including CarFit and We Need to Talk.

Dieterle isn’t alone in wanting the insurance break. He’s found that most of his students take the class for that reason. Many companies that operate in Arizona voluntarily offer a discount to drivers 50 and over who complete the course once every three years.

“To keep up the discount, they keep coming back. Some people have been in my class two or three times,” Dieterle said.

Become a better driver

Jane Simmers, 66, of Phoenix, is a former traffic school instructor who recently began volunteering to teach the Smart Driver course. She enjoys working as an instructor for AARP because, unlike in her previous position, there are no court-mandated attendees forced to take her Smart Driver classes.

Though the prospect of possibly getting cheaper insurance attracts participants, Simmers also cites the main reason for taking the course: to become a better driver.

“It’s a good review of defensive driving,” she said. “It covers the rules we first learned and all the changes that have taken place since—to the law, the vehicles, the navigation systems, the technology, and to the design and engineering of the roads.”

One change Simmers teaches is where to put your hands on the steering wheel: “When we learned to drive, they didn’t have air bags. We were taught to drive with hands at 10 and 2. But because air bags can cause injuries to your arms and hands, it might be better to put them at 9 and 3, or 8 and 4.”

The four-hour course also covers how changes in reaction time, hearing and vision can affect older drivers. It looks at the dangers posed by mixing alcohol with medications, as well as how to know when to limit or quit driving.

While some volunteer instructors in Arizona, like Dieterle and Simmers, teach only during the winter months, others teach year-round.

Stan Mead, 69, of Tucson, who has taught more than 60 classes since 2005, leads three or four sessions a month. The location rotates among the Tucson Jewish Community Center, the Pima Council on Aging, the downtown New York Life building and the AARP Tucson Information Center.

In the Phoenix area, classes are held year-round at senior centers and other community locations. To find classes anywhere in Arizona, go to or call toll-free 877-846-3299.

The Smart Driver course is open to all licensed drivers, although it’s geared to those 50 and over. The cost is $15 for AARP members and $20 for nonmembers. The online course costs $17.95 for members and $21.95 for nonmembers.

Snowbirds who take the course and want to receive an insurance discount should first check with their home-state insurer.

Volunteer instructors are also welcome. Information about how to become one is available during the class and at
Miriam Davidson is a writer based in Tucson, Ariz.

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