By Sheila Burke
When Jack Copeland signed up for the AARP Smart Driver course, he had one motive: saving money on his car insurance. With more than 50 years of experience behind the wheel, it’s not as if he needed to learn how to drive.
But much to the surprise of the 70-year-old retired federal worker, the course taught him several things he didn’t know and reminded him of a few rules he had forgotten. He learned how to enter a roundabout. And he discovered that all this time he’d been adjusting his mirrors incorrectly.
“There’s a lot of new things you can learn,” Copeland, who lives in Knoxville and drives to Florida twice a year, said of the class. “I think if you took it every year you could still learn something.”
Under state law, drivers 55 and older who complete the course may qualify for a discount on their car insurance. For taking the class, Copeland got a nearly 10 percent reduction in his premium.
AARP has long been committed to helping older drivers maintain their skills on the road, launching a driving course in 1979. Last year, the safety class got a major overhaul and is now called the Smart Driver course.
Impact of aging
“It’s a really good refresher,” Michelle Wisner, AARP Tennessee senior operations associate, said of the course. “We all know the older we get, sometimes our reflexes change, we’re taking medication, our eyesight changes.
“So as things are happening to our bodies,” she added, “it’s a way to educate people how this can affect your driving ability, and it will help prevent serious accidents.”
The new eight-hour course can be taken in one day or two, said Carolyn Rambo, 73, driver safety district coordinator. Classes are usually held at churches, libraries and community centers. The cost is $15 for AARP members and $20 for nonmembers. An online course is available at $17.95 for members and $21.95 for nonmembers.
Part of the course focuses on Tennessee’s rules of the road. There are videos on driving and the use of medication, as well as about problems with perception, flexibility, hearing and eyesight.
Drivers learn how to navigate challenging weather conditions and what to do if they skid, crash or even hit a deer.
There’s also a portion of the course that teaches people how to gently tell loved ones that maybe they shouldn’t be driving anymore.
“You don’t just say, ‘Your driving is terrible, you need to get off the road,’ ” Rambo said.
She won’t tell anyone that it’s time to put away the keys, but she might suggest a professional driving assessment, perhaps in addition to a family conversation, for someone who is struggling.
A portion of the new course is devoted to understanding the many new features and advanced technology in the latest cars.
“It’s kind of daunting to get into these new vehicles to try and figure everything out,” said Nancy Carmon, 68, a volunteer instructor in Knoxville.
There were 211 Smart Driver classes taught in Tennessee last year, with 3,178 participants. To find the location of a course near you, go to aarp.org/drive or call 877-846-3299 toll-free.
AARP is looking for more volunteers to teach the course. Anyone interested in volunteering can take the course and contact Wisner at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free at 866-295-7274 or directly at 615-726-5102.
“I volunteer with this program because I enjoy giving back to my community and it makes me feel good that I’m helping other seniors,” Rambo said.
Volunteers provide a valuable service in helping older drivers retain their sense of independence and freedom, Wisner said.
“People want to enjoy their life,” she said. “And we just want to make sure they can enjoy it to the best of their ability and still be safe drivers on the road.”
Sheila Burke is a writer living in Nashville.