By Lisa H. Towle
Betsy Cantrell, 73, is a lifelong learner who believes the AARP Driver Safety course is a lifesaver. The former teacher has taken the course three times over the past 12 years.
“I’ve learned something every time,” said Cantrell, of Asheville.
One of the useful tips she’s picked up in the half-day class is the three-second rule to double-check that you are following at a safe distance: Choose a fixed point such as a road sign or building that is even with the car immediately in front of you. If your car reaches that same point before you can count to three, then there’s a need to fall back.
Another tip is how to avoid a collision at an intersection: Look left, then right, then left again before proceeding.
“How simple is that?” asked Cantrell, who credits the “refresher” classes for helping her to steer away from potential crashes.
Cantrell has put her convictions to work by volunteering to find locations for AARP Driver Safety courses across 31 counties in western North Carolina.
Open to all, geared to 50+
AARP Driver Safety is geared to motorists 50 or older, but anyone can attend. AARP members pay $12; nonmembers pay $14. Online classes are also offered in Spanish or English at $15.95 for AARP members, $19.95 for nonmembers.
Clinton Smoke, 74, of Asheville, knows that driving longevity doesn’t equal greater safety. For five years, Smoke, a retired Coast Guard officer and community college fire science instructor, has volunteered as a Driver Safety instructor.
He uses humor—“I’m not old, I’m chronologically gifted”—to relay a serious message: “Since we began driving, our bodies and brains have changed, our vehicles have changed, and our roads have changed.
“We need to learn how to deal with these things because the reality is if there’s a crash, someone may not walk again, much less drive again,” he said.
There are nearly 3 million drivers in the state who are 50 or older; roughly half of them are 60-plus.
A report by the Governor’s Highway Safety Program for fiscal year 2013 noted that older drivers are less likely to be involved in a crash. While nearly 15 percent of drivers in the state are 65 or older, they accounted for only 9 percent of crashes in 2011.
But older drivers are nearly three times more likely to die when involved in a crash than younger people.
“Crashes involving older drivers tend to include problems with maneuvering—things like turns—as opposed to younger drivers, where more often there’s speed involved,” said Bill Hall, a senior researcher with the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill.
During the four-hour classroom course, AARP Driver Safety instructors cover topics such as how to compensate for age-related changes in hearing, vision and reaction time; the newest rules of the road; and how various new car features function.
CarFit for your vehicle
A related program for older drivers is CarFit, which is designed to adjust vehicles to fit drivers’ bodies for maximum comfort and safety. Participants drive their own automobiles to a CarFit session for a free 20-minute one-on-one assessment.
Marion Manigo-Truell, 68, of Greensboro, state coordinator for AARP Driver Safety, said North Carolina auto insurance companies may offer a discount to drivers 55 and older who have successfully completed the course, but markdowns are not required by North Carolina as they are in some other states.
Last year, 85 AARP volunteers in North Carolina taught more than 2,500 drivers in 250 classes.
“In 2012, 99 percent of our class participants reported changing at least one driving habit as a result of taking the class,” said Manigo-
Truell. “The biggest lure ... of this reeducation is the real possibility of helping seniors stay independent and accident-free for the remainder of their lives.”
To volunteer as a Driver Safety instructor, contact Manigo-Truell at email@example.com.
Lisa H. Towle, head of Liskar Communications and a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.