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Driver Safety Program: More Than Discounts

Driver Safety 2

Over the seven years that he has taught AARP Smart Driver courses, Peter Jensen has seen it many times: the transformation of a student who showed up at a spouse’s urging.

“They’ll sit for an hour or so with their arms crossed, maybe reading a comic book, but after a while, this person is leaning forward and looking eagerly for the next presentation,” said Jensen, 85, of Belmont, volunteer state coordinator for the AARP Driver Safety program.

“Why? Because we’re making sense,” he said. “No left turns makes sense. Not having an accident makes sense. We’re presenting factual, research-based material for the older driver.”

The Smart Driver course is designed to sharpen skills and safety awareness. In 2019, more than 16,500 Californians took the in-person class, but only 2,877 did so last year, due to the pandemic.

Now the eight-hour course is online and self-paced, and can be completed over 60 days. It costs $21.95 for AARP members and $27.95 for nonmembers.

Under state law, residents 55-plus who complete a recognized “mature driver improvement course” can qualify for reduced insurance premiums. Insurers determine the reduction, so check with your insurance agent. A four-hour refresher class every three years is needed to continue to receive the discount.

Jensen, a retired risk manager for a casualty insurance company, said the premium reduction—typically from 5 to 20 percent—is the biggest draw for the courses. But once students show up, they learn plenty. “About 75 percent of the people who walk out of our class tell us they’ve changed at least three things in their driving habits,” he said.

Dealing with aging

Class instructors offer ways to combat age-related changes in hearing, vision, flexibility and reaction time. Clean windshields, windows and taillights improve visibility. Limiting conversations reduces distractions. And avoiding busy highways makes up for slower reaction time.

Left turns are especially dangerous, Jensen observed. “That’s how so many accidents happen for seniors,” he said. “Our vision is diminished. And aging reduces the ability to judge distances of oncoming traffic.”

Before he retired from his high school teaching job, Tom McMahon, 68, of Roseville, commuted up to 85 miles a day.

The car’s primacy in California adds to the urgency that drivers periodically assess their skills.

“You get ingrained; you get bad habits,” said McMahon, who has taught Smart Driver courses since 2014. “People forget about the little things, like keeping their eyes moving.”

Statewide, the leading cause of fatal crashes by older drivers is impairment, Jensen said. Medication or hearing loss can be a factor.

AARP also offers other free Driver Safety workshops online:

CarFit helps drivers adapt to their vehicles to reduce the risk of injury from a crash.

We Need to Talk offers ways to gauge a loved one’s driving skills and to consider when it’s time to limit or stop driving.

Smart DriverTEK explains safety benefits of high-tech automotive features.

Using App-based Ridesharing Services describes options such as Uber and Lyft.

To take the online Smart Driver course, go to

Pamela Schmid is a writer based in Minnesota.

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