Older drivers study safety and pay smaller premiums after AAA course
Aug. 20, 1997

Sanford Kay has always been an eager student who studied pharmacy and medicine in his early years and never tired of learning.

That attitude led the 70-year-old Kay to take a course this month in Bethesda in a field he mastered more than 50 years ago -- driving. Kay said its one of the best decisions he's ever made.

"I got some really useful information and learning,'' said Kay, who took the course with his wife, Diane, 61. "I had never had a driver's ed course. When I was 18, they said to me 'get in the car and drive' and I did.''

The Kays were among two dozen older people who attended two four-hour sessions called the Mature Operators Program, offered throughout the year at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Services Center and elsewhere in the Washington area.

Created by AAA, the course tutors drivers who are 55 years old and older on how to prevent accidents that arise from the physical effects of aging.

That's important: drivers who are 50 and older have more crashes per mile driven than any other age group except the youngest drivers. And fatal crash rates rise sharply at age 70 and older, according to AAA studies.

Insurance companies are so impressed with the course that many lower premiums for those who take it, said Norman Grimm, who manages traffic safety for AAA Potomac.

"We approach the whole problem of older drivers as a matter of managing risk. We all make mistakes occasionally, but if we have proper information we can reduce risk,'' said Frank Kenel, 67, a former AAA staff director of traffic safety who has a doctorate in driver education and who created the Mature Operators course in 1979.

Kenel, who taught this month's course, noted that most who take the course are like Kay; they come from a generation that never took driver's education courses as young people do today.

They didn't learn concepts such as "air,'' which means the amount of space that should be around a car on the road.

They are not up to speed on the latest thinking, such as the fact that using headlights during the day, which is law in some countries already, reduces risk, Kenel said.

"Cars handle entirely differently today than when we first learned to drive,'' Kenel said.

Older drivers also have to cope with inevitable hearing loss, eyes that don't see as well, the fact that it is harder to turn necks and bodies in all directions to gauge traffic and that it takes longer to process information.

Reflexes are less sharp.

The AAA course, which costs $35 for AAA members and $40 for non-members, offers practical help, suggesting that drivers add larger rearview mirrors to increase the range of visibility; that they leave more room in front of a car to allow more space and time to stop; that they avoid left turns if they are uncomfortable and take the longer time necessary to get places by taking right turns if possible.

The course also warns older drivers not to use the radio or talk on cell phones because both are distracting; suggests older drivers rehearse routes ahead of time; and that they avoid high-speed freeways and give up night driving.

The course also faces the question of when a driver should decide to stop driving altogether.

Kenel believes chronological age is not the key factor in the decision. More important is having a series of minor accidents or near misses; being unable to concentrate; having trouble reading ordinary road signs; getting lost on familiar roads; being honked at frequently by other drivers; and being spoken to about your driving by police, family and friends.

"Everyone of us has to face the fact that at some point in time, we will have to give up our driver's license,'' said Kenel.

Edith Gamble, 81, said she took the course this month hoping to have her insurance premiums lowered, but she was pleased to find how much she learned.

"I became more aware of all the circumstances around me, more aware of the traffic signs, of the road conditions," said Gamble, who took the course with her 87-year-old husband, who still drives. "It helped us to keep on top of things we need to know."

To take the class

To learn where and when the course is given, call Norman Grimm at AAA Potomac at 703-222-4104.