By Aliya S. King
When it comes to driving, Belinda Jackson was a late bloomer.
“My friends began driving as soon as they could,” Jackson said. “I had so many friends with cars that I had no incentive to learn to drive.”
At 23, she decided to get her license, and more than 30 years later, Jackson remained confident in her driving skills. But she decided to take the online version of the AARP Smart Driver course to save money on car insurance.
New Jersey law mandates that drivers receive a discount on their auto insurance if they complete the course. Drivers can also have two points taken off their driving record.
“I realized there was so much I didn’t know or didn’t remember,” said Jackson, 55, of Willingboro. “This is more than just saving money. I’m going to be a better driver now.”
Arun Bhattacharya, state coordinator of the AARP Driver Safety program, sees quite a few drivers who don’t realize how important a refresher course can be.
“For many of us, it’s been some time since we learned how to drive,” said Bhattacharya, of Jackson. “Things have changed quite a bit, and it’s not easy to keep up. New Jersey drivers who want to be proactive are signing up for this course.”
In person or online
Roughly 13,500 drivers in the state completed the course in 2015. Drivers can sign up for a six-hour in-person class—which can be completed over two days, depending on the location—or an equivalent online version that can be completed over time.
The classroom course is $15 for AARP members and $20 for nonmembers; the online class is $19.95 for members and $24.95 for nonmembers.
Like Jackson, Bhattacharya acknowledged that the financial incentive was his primary reason for taking the course many years ago. “But then I learned so much from the class that I realized it was truly beneficial for me,” he said.
Jackson said she found the course an invaluable wake-up call.
“I realized just how often I drive in an unsafe manner just because other drivers do,” she said. “And I didn’t know you could get a ticket for blocking an intersection while waiting to make a left turn. I do that every day.”
Jackson said she also learned not to swerve to avoid deer in her neighborhood, since hitting a nearby tree could be much worse.
And she will now plan her route before leaving the house and find an alternate route when certain roadways are under construction or have heavy traffic.
In addition to the driving class, the AARP Driver Safety program offers two other free initiatives.
The CarFit program is an assessment to help older drivers make sure they are positioned properly in their vehicles, including checking the angle of the mirrors and the driver’s distance from the steering wheel.
A seminar called “We Need to Talk” helps adults speak with parents and other family members who need to limit or stop their driving.
Important factors for safe driving such as eyesight and reaction time can become diminished with age. It’s a sensitive topic to address, and “We Need to Talk,” offered online and in the classroom, gives tips and guidance on how to approach the conversation. Many of the tips are also covered in the Smart Driver course.
“You don’t want to just say, ‘Give the keys over,’ ” said Bhattacharya. “The process should be done over time. You may need to limit driving at first and show them that they can still have independence.”
Jackson said the tips from “We Need to Talk” provided an important lesson. She is concerned about her father, who is driving at 76.
“I’m going to ask my dad to take me out for a drive,” she said. “And now I know what to look for to make sure he’s safe behind the wheel.”
To find a class or to learn more about becoming a volunteer instructor, go to aarp.org/drive or call 877-846-3299 toll-free.
Aliya S. King is a writer living in Bloomfield, NJ.