By Tim Poor
The freedom to drive is not something Charlene Wall takes for granted anymore. Three years ago she was hospitalized with a serious illness. Doctors feared brain damage and advised Wall’s kids to take away her car keys.
“I like being able to jump in the car and drive whenever I like,” said Wall, 61, of Chesterfield.
After occupational therapy, she recovered and eventually was able to drive again, but she recalled that it was a struggle.
“Fighting to get driving privileges back from the kids was hard,” she said. Once she got back behind the wheel, she thought: “Maybe I should keep looking at my skills a little bit.”
That’s what she did, with the help of a driving class offered by AARP. Now she teaches the course to others and is a zone coordinator for the Smart Driver course. “I do it because I know how important it is to keep your skills fresh,” she said.
AARP has offered a driving course since 1979. It revamped the course last year; it’s now four hours instead of eight, and it’s tailored to account for different driving laws and conditions in each state.
“It’s a brand-new curriculum,” said Mary Tillman of Breckenridge Hills, state coordinator for the program. “The content has been updated to include new road regulations and designs, new traffic laws.”
In Missouri, about 50 volunteers teach at 139 host sites, such as businesses, churches, banks and hospitals. In 2014, more than 1,300 participants took the course in person, while nearly 700 took it online.
Anyone can take the class, which costs $15 for AARP members and $20 for nonmembers, but it’s designed for motorists 50 and older. The online course costs $17.95 for members and $21.95 for nonmembers.
Unlike some states, Missouri does not require insurance companies to offer discounts for people who take the course, but many companies do anyway.
AARP Missouri seeks volunteers to teach and facilities to host the classes. People interested in taking the class or in volunteering to be an instructor can go to aarp.org/drive or call 877-846-3299 toll-free.
Tillman said instructors are particularly needed in the Missouri Bootheel, St. Charles County and St. Louis. As the average age of instructors nationwide is 73, “We need some younger baby boomers to participate,” she said.
Instructors must complete the training process and be able to work with computers. They commit to holding at least three classes a year, then get training from one of five trainers statewide. Finally, they coteach with an instructor who evaluates them.
Once an instructor is certified, he or she inherits a host site or finds one at which to hold a class.
Tillman has been in the program since 2006 and was named the state coordinator in 2013.
“What I like most is that I’m working with my peers,” she said. “We can relate to how the roads have changed, how things have changed, and how much we as people have changed over the years.”
Participants learn to adjust to new things such as blinking left-turn arrows, different highway configurations and roundabouts. The class also includes a discussion of new car technology, such as backup cameras, GPS and blind-spot indicators.
“Quite a few of my students have this new technology and use it,” Wall said.
Anthony Glover is a fitness instructor at the O’Fallon Park Rec Complex branch of the YMCA in St. Louis. He took the course and liked it so much that he arranged for the course to be taught at the Y.
“I thought it just made sense,” said Glover, who lives in Pasadena Hills and was 68 when he took the course two years ago. “Over the years, habits form and rules are forgotten. It’s a nice reminder, a refresher.
“Life changes and you have to be concerned about things you didn’t have to worry about before,” he added.
Charlene Wall agrees. For her, the class has an added benefit: “My kids will even ride with me now.”
Tim Poor is a writer based in Clayton, MO.