By Pamela Schmid
Ray Murray, an AARP volunteer, figures he has driven a million and a half miles during his decades-long career selling claims processing solutions to insurance companies.
He’s grateful that two close calls on the road ended with little more than “horns honking, tires squealing and universal hand signals passed back and forth.”
Both of those near crashes happened, Murray said, when he was “not paying attention, overtook slower traffic, made a move into the fast lane and somebody was already there.” They also occurred before he enrolled in his first AARP Smart Driver course.
Thanks to the knowledge he’s gained by taking and teaching the course, Murray, 76, of Hugo, said he is “absolutely” a better driver today.
“I’m just much more aware,” said Murray, an instructor for 17 years. “I’m hopefully on the alert for what the other gal or guy is doing—just watching for people doing things they shouldn’t be doing but are doing anyway, like talking on their cellphone or texting while driving.”
The eight-hour class, often given over two evenings, is geared for drivers 50-plus. “It’s a chance to get on top of your game and sharpen skills that may save your life,” Murray told participants at a class held at Cox Insurance in St. Paul recently.
The course, also taught in community centers and schools, includes a guidebook, videos and classroom discussion.
Minnesota law mandates that drivers 55 and older receive a discount of at least 10 percent on their auto insurance policies for three years if they have completed a recognized safety course such as Smart Driver.
Last year, 36,201 Minnesotans took a Smart Driver course, including 11,438 who took the online version, according to Cheryl Stepney, 69, of Bloomington, the program’s state coordinator. Minnesota ranks third, behind New York and Florida, in the number of classroom participants.
How aging affects driving
Instructors cover ways that age-related changes—in vision, hearing, reaction time—can affect driving and suggest steps to mitigate the effects. Avoiding driving at dusk or dawn can help those with weakened vision. Turning down the radio can help motorists stay alert to honking horns or emergency vehicles.
“As older drivers, we have to be willing to change,” said Cheryl Salo, 71, of Edina, who has been an instructor since 2013.
In addition, recent technology—such as backup cameras, blind-spot monitors on exterior mirrors and automatic stopping—can improve safety.
Another offering is AARP Smart DriverTEK, a 90-minute workshop that acquaints drivers with current and evolving driver safety technologies. A related program, CarFit, developed in conjunction with AAA and the American Occupational Therapy Association, shows drivers how to find the safest fit for their car, from seats to mirrors.
We Need to Talk, a seminar also offered online, addresses ways to assess and discuss when it might be time for a relative to stop or limit driving. Stepney urges “lots of conversations and observations. Mentally take notes so you have a date and time, so you can say, ‘Remember when they honked at you?’ A lot of us elders like evidence.”
CarFit, We Need to Talk and Smart DriverTEK are free. The Smart Driver classroom course is $15 for members, $20 for nonmembers. The online course is $19.95 for members, $24.95 for nonmembers.
Pamela Schmid is a writer living in St. Paul.