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Take the Road to Safer Driving

Sandra and Russell Engle with driver safety instructor Sandra Simmons (standing). Photo by Dean van Dis

By Kathleen O’Gorman

Sandra and Russell Engle know all about the hazards of M-20, a four-lane highway connecting Midland and New Era that carries a brisk daily load of trucks, buses and automobiles commuters, students heading to campus and gamblers on their way to the big tribal casino in Mt. Pleasant.

So when the Engles, who live in Greendale Township in Midland County, heard about an AARP Driver Safety course being offered last fall, they signed up.

They’re glad they did. “I came away much more aware of my driving,” said Sandra, 75.

She said she learned, among other things, how to properly adjust her seat belt, particularly the lap portion.

“I did not know the proper seat belt position, down low, below your tummy area,” she said. “I wore my seat belt right across my tummy.”

The course also stressed the importance of planning a trip route before setting out, “so you’re not passing your off-ramp on the expressway and having to maneuver around another way to get where you want to go.”

And she said defensive driving was stressed, which is crucial as response times slow with aging.

The couple are among the 3.2 million Michigan drivers who are 50-plus, including nearly 35,000 who are 90 or older. But while drivers 65 and older were involved in fewer than 9 percent of all crashes in Michigan in 2012, they accounted for almost 15 percent of the drivers in fatal crashes, according to the Michigan State Police.

Michigan has no special requirements for older drivers, but all drivers must renew their licenses in person every eight years and take a vision test at that time, said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan secretary of state.

New name, new material

Since the Engles took the AARP course, an updated version with a new name—the AARP Smart Driver Course—debuted in January.

AARP spent two years working with driving safety researchers, professionals and volunteers to revamp the materials, said LaJoyce Eberhardt, Michigan state coordinator for AARP Driver Safety. The new look features reader-friendly printed materials with full-color pages and an easy-to-follow format.

“It’s a life-saving program,” Eberhardt said. “We’re giving information that helps people to sustain the ability to drive longer and safer.”

About 100 volunteer instructors have taught the course in recent years at dozens of public sites around Michigan, said Eberhardt, who hopes to recruit more instructors this year.

Sandra Simmons, 74, of Midland, taught the course the Engles took and geared up early this year for her 2014 classes, which she teaches from April to October. Even though she’s taught the course for nine years. But she said there’s always something new to learn—like navigating roundabouts and shared bicycle-automobile lanes, which are popping up across Michigan.

Simmons said the course shows how roundabouts are designed to improve safety because they lower speeds and eliminate left turns as well as head-on traffic. Traffic moves counterclockwise, and motorists entering the roundabout must yield to those already in it.

“Most of the people in class who travel a lot say roundabouts really do help make things easier, but it’s a steep learning curve,” she said.

With two roundabouts on the way for Midland, Simmons joked that she plans to pack a lunch and her pajamas and head out to practice once they’re finished, “because I have no idea how long it will take me to get out of them.”

Simmons also goes over fundamentals like how to set side mirrors to minimize blind spots. It makes some people uncomfortable, she said, because mirrors should be adjusted so your car is barely visible when you lean against the window. Simmons likes to put students at ease—and draw a laugh—by assuring them that even though they can’t see the back of the car, “it will be there when you get home.”

The AARP Smart Driver Course takes eight hours, usually in four-hour sessions over two days, though some instructors teach it in a single day. Cost is $15 for AARP members and $20 for nonmembers. There also are eight- and four-hour online versions, both of  which cost $17.95 for members and $21.95 for nonmembers. Spanish versions are available.

To find a course near you, go to or call toll-free 888-227-7669. Those interested in being volunteer instructors can contact Eberhardt at 248-443-2847 or You can also register online for the course or volunteer to become an instructor. The website has a wealth of other driving safety information as well.

Drivers who complete the course may be eligible for discounts on their auto insurance, but discounts are not automatic in Michigan. Check with your insurer.
Kathleen O’Gorman is a freelance writer based in Royal Oak, Mich.

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