By Michelle R. Davis
Pat Dixon, 63, drives her grandchildren around regularly. She has carpal tunnel syndrome in one wrist that can flare up when she’s behind the wheel, and she tries to avoid congested traffic. Dixon also wants to feel more confident about her driving.
So in February, she attended a four-hour AARP Smart Driver course to learn how to remain secure on the road. After the class, Dixon, who splits her time between her Florida home and her son’s house in Montgomery Village, had a to-do list: Get her hearing evaluated, ask the pharmacist whether her medications could make her a drowsy driver, and make an appointment with AARP’s CarFit program, which checks to make sure mirrors and seats are adjusted properly.
The fact that she’ll get a discount on car insurance by attending the class was a bonus.
“There are some things that I didn’t even think about,” Dixon said. “I’m a good driver, but I want to be as careful as I can be as I get older.”
The Smart Driver class provides a refresher on driving rules and information about new vehicle technology, the impact of aging, strategies to avoid accidents and how to plan for a future that may no longer include driving.
In 2017, about 3,700 drivers participated in 374 courses in Maryland, said Rose Hobson, state coordinator for AARP’s Driver Safety program. Geared for drivers 50-plus but open to anyone, the course costs $15 for AARP members and $20 for nonmembers. An online version is $19.95 for members and $24.95 for nonmembers.
After taking the class seven years ago, Hobson, 67, of Forestville, said she began using the strategies recommended and felt more confident on the road. Then she became an instructor.
During a February class, instructor Ceceil Belong, 76, of Silver Spring, noted that the number of crashes in Maryland involving older drivers is rising. The leading cause of accidents in the state is distracted driving, which can mean anything from noisy grandchildren in the back seat to cellphone use, she said.
Maryland has more than 730,000 licensed drivers 65 and older, according to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.
Older drivers are involved in fewer crashes than younger ones, but the fatal crash rate for drivers over 70 rises significantly. Drivers over 85 have the highest fatality rates per mile.
Assessing the impact of aging
Belong highlighted the normal effects of aging that could impair driving—narrowing of peripheral vision, a decrease in night vision, cognitive changes that may slow reaction time. She suggests that drivers ask themselves regularly, “Am I fit to drive today?”
One sensitive course topic is what happens when it may not be safe to drive anymore. It can be an emotional transition, and some are reluctant to give up the independence that driving provides.
Hobson said classes take a factual approach: “I’m not there to put fear in people or necessarily change anything. I just want to give them an ‘aha’ moment and something to think about.”
Dixon, who expects to have many more years of safe driving, said the class did just that.
“We talked a lot about what happens when you can’t drive anymore,” Dixon said. “After this, if my children came to me and said they were concerned, I would trust their judgment.”
To find a class, call 877-846-3299 or go to aarp.org/drive. To learn about becoming an instructor, go to aarp.org/volunteernow.
Michelle R. Davis is a writer living in Silver Spring.