By Drew Jubera
Jerry Lee attended a safe-driving course more than two decades ago, when his parents bought him an AARP membership for his 50th birthday and invited him to join them at a class. Their main motivation: the 10 percent discount that car insurers in Georgia give those with clean driving records who complete the course.
Now Lee, 76, teaches the AARP Smart Driver class as a volunteer in Atlanta. And though many of those he’s taught over the past 15 years still come for the insurance discount, most people leave the six-hour course better drivers.
“For some of us who took driver safety classes in high school, the core principles are the same,” Lee said of the course, designed for drivers 50-plus but open to all. “But a lot has changed. I don’t care what age you are, you have a ton of challenges driving in a place like metro Atlanta.”
Offered by AARP since 1979 and taken by nearly 20,000 Georgians each year, the Smart Driver course covers topics applicable to everyone. These include tips on driving in the rain and navigating various intersections, including roundabouts, a relatively recent addition to Georgia roads.
“It was a good brushup. It reaffirmed all the things I learned over a lifetime of driving, as well as things I knew but either forgot or wasn’t doing,” said Mary Lou Brooks, 86, of Dunwoody, who’s taken the course at least three times—mainly for the insurance discount.
Taught by about 130 instructors statewide in locations such as libraries, churches and senior centers, the course also covers subjects geared specifically to older drivers. One example is changes on the road: Lee points out how much more signage drivers now need to interpret.
Vehicle technology presents challenges, too. With each new model, drivers must get used to advances such as rear- and side-vision cameras and more complex dashboard controls.
But while most technology enhances safety, Lee reminds drivers not to become overly dependent on it.
“The technology is only a supplement. You don’t let technology supplant what you normally do,” he said.
Examples he gives: Drivers still need to turn their heads to check mirror blind spots when changing lanes and understand that rear cameras have a limited range of vision.
The course also covers physical changes in older drivers. Eyesight can deteriorate in ways that affect depth perception. Reaction times may be slower and need to be allowed for. And the effects of medications must be taken into account before one hits the road.
“My big word in these classes is ‘change,’ ” said Bobby Jones, 81, of Riverdale, who has taught the course for 19 years.
“You can’t overlook the fact that there’ve been changes in roads, in automobiles and in yourself,” Jones said. “You can’t do the same thing you did years ago. There are changes every day, and there are going to be more changes tomorrow.”
Brooks said that even though she considers herself a good driver, she always finds the course worthwhile. In fact, she recently suggested the class to her four children—ages 57 to 63.
“I think it’s a good idea for anybody at any age,” she said. “Things change with age, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t look into it.”
The Smart Driver course is $15 for AARP members, $20 for nonmembers. It’s available online at $19.95 for members and $24.95 for nonmembers. Learn more at aarp.org/drive or call 888-227-7669 toll-free.
— Drew Jubera is a writer living in Atlanta.