By Nancy Johnson
Cars have changed a lot since Jeanette Pike bought her first vehicle, a 1968 Chevy Malibu. Road signs, rules and driving conditions have changed, too.
The Gary resident learned how to improve her driving skills in 2012, when she took an AARP Driver Safety class. She enjoyed it so much that when she learned the course needed instructors, she signed up.
“I thought, with my experience in teaching, I can do that,” said Pike, 71, a retired publishing company salesperson and former elementary and high school teacher.
Today, Pike teaches the AARP Smart Driver course, which was introduced in January 2014. It’s a revised version of the course that AARP volunteers have taught since 1979, updating drivers 50 and over on new technologies and driving laws so they can stay safe, independent and confident on the road.
The revised course has new materials based on research conducted by the Eastern Virginia Medical School using driving simulators and input from driver safety instructors nationwide. The four-hour class is taught at libraries, senior centers and other community meeting places, said Les Pence, 80, program coordinator for Indiana.
It deals with newer road conditions, such as the roundabouts that are cropping up around the state, and how to respond to signals such as flashing red or yellow lights and green or red arrows. It also boosts other driving skills, such as how to merge into fast-moving highway traffic, and includes flexibility exercises to keep the neck limber enough to look out side windows, Pence said.
Left turns seem to be a common problem, Pike said. “Some students don’t understand about yielding the right-of-way in an intersection. You should not go into the intersection until it is clear.”
One of the most important features of the new class is a 22-question self-evaluation that a student can take in private—without a doctor or relative looking on—to determine if he or she should no longer drive. Questions include whether drivers feel confident and how often they fail to notice red lights or stop signs while driving.
Sometimes drivers realize they need to limit their driving to daylight hours or short trips such as to the local grocery. Other times, family members pressure an older person to stop driving altogether.
“It is very touchy to think about giving up the keys,” Pence said, “but the program teaches that the decision should be made in a clinical way, such as when you can’t turn your head to see traffic.”
Some insurance companies offer discounts to Hoosiers who complete the course. Drivers should check with their insurance agent, said Pence, a retired school superintendent from Sheridan.
The program in Indiana is popular and growing. In 2014, volunteers taught about 100 classes—the most ever for the state—to about 1,000 students. Two years ago there were nine instructors; now there are 25, with five more in training. Pence would like to add at least five more a year, especially in the southern part of the state.
Volunteer instructors need to take the Smart Driver class, complete an instructor training course and commit to teaching at least three classes during the year.
Leading Smart Driver classes is a good way to give back to the community, said instructor and chief trainer Jay Davidson, 73, of Marion.
Pike agreed: “The whole purpose of the class is to save lives.”
Older people often lose their confidence as they drive less, but “instructors can help an older person drive safely and keep mobile so they can still go out with their friends,” said Davidson, a retired telephone company repair specialist.
To attend a Smart Driver class, go to aarp.org/drive or call 877-846-3299 toll-free. Classes are $15 for AARP members and $20 for nonmembers. To register for an online class in English or Spanish, go to aarp driversafety.org. Online classes are $17.95 for AARP members and $21.95 for nonmembers.
To volunteer as an instructor, go to aarp.org/drive or email state coordinator Les Pence at email@example.com.
Nancy Johnson is a freelance writer based in South Bend, Ind.