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Thursday, November 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Wheel improvement: Safety courses give senior drivers refreshers on rules, techniques

Tribune News Service (Tim Ladwig / KRT)
Tribune News Service (Tim Ladwig / KRT)

Retired patrol officer Rich Underwood began a driver safety class by asking, not telling.

Most of his students arrived with 50 to 70 years of experience under their seat belts. So Underwood asked first about driving pet peeves and questions.

“Most of you in here have been driving a lot longer than I have, so I know you have stories,” said Underwood, at the start of the daylong Saturday class at 911 Driving School of Spokane.

His 43 pupils in the Sept. 17 AAA Driver Improvement Program asked about roundabouts, red-light cameras, and yield confusions among other traffic concerns.

While a few younger drivers attended because of traffic court, most were seniors. With raised hands, they admitted mainly showing up to get a small auto insurance premium break by taking the class.

People ages 55 and older who complete the AAA course offered through 911 Driving School of Spokane may qualify for the discount. The class fee is $16 for AAA members and $25 for nonmembers.

There’s no driving behind the wheel. Instead, the classroom-only course covers new traffic laws, refreshers on old rules, defensive driving techniques, vehicle technologies, driving emergencies and the hazards of impaired and distracted driving.

Other groups offer similar senior driver courses for potential insurance discounts, including AARP’s Smart Driver for ages 50 and older that’s available as a class at area senior centers. The AARP session costs $15 for members, $20 for nonmembers.

By 2020, an estimated 38 million drivers will be older than 70. By 2030, one in four licensed drivers will be people older than 65 in the U.S., said Dan Coon, AAA Washington traffic safety programs manager.

“It’s a big population, and the baby boomers like to maintain their mobility and independence,” he said. “They’re an active age group. They don’t want to turn 65 and stop; they want to continue driving.”

Typically, 911 Driving School holds the AAA class in north Spokane about five times a year. Underwood said older drivers in his classes do tell him they pick up new information about traffic rules and technology, or recall steps for safer travel.

“People start developing bad habits or they forget the good habits,” Underwood said. “And they start getting some physical impairments.”

He listed potential concerns that include diminished vision, drifting in lanes, and failure to look over the shoulder for lane changes. He tells his students to remember the acronym, SMOG, for signal, mirror check, over-the-shoulder look, and go if clear.

“We give them some tips, like how to keep centered in the lane,” Underwood said. “We talk about updates on laws and vehicles.”

For Jackie Campbell, 86, the recent AAA driver improvement course was her fourth. Each time, Campbell said she hears something that’s helpful.

“It jogs your memory,” Campbell said. “You get in a habit of just driving, and you don’t maybe look as good left and right.”

She entered the class with 82-year-old Ronna Johnson, who wanted to learn more about roundabout rules. “They’ve got two of them in Deer Park,” she said. “Everyone’s confused at first.”

Class participant Darlene LaFollette, 84, said the course helps with acknowledging age limitations and how to deal with them. “As you get older, your reaction time diminishes, so you need to be aware.”

The 911 Driving School also offers separate $60 vehicle-driving sessions that give driver assessments. Ashala Faircrest, 59, took the recent AAA class with her 90-year-old mother, Helen Sforza, who is still driving and earlier had completed the 911 Driving assessment after a surgery and rehabilitation.

“Our agreement with her doctor is we’d have her evaluated,” said Faircrest, adding it was easier to have an independent party evaluate whether a parent should still be driving. “The No. 1 thing is safety – her safety and the safety of other people around her. Her instructor said she’s doing great.”

For Bob Stanley, 71, he also has attended the AAA course multiple times and doesn’t mind. “There’s always rules and laws that change,” he said. “Every time you come, you’re always learning something new that maybe they didn’t cover in the first class, or you didn’t catch it.”

Coon said AAA contracts with 911 Driving School to teach its Spokane course, and instructors go through AAA training.

“A lot of it is a refresher,” Coon said. “We get set in our ways, and those may not be the best way.”

He also gave an example of how new vehicle technology impacts drivers.

“People might not be aware of the 10 and 2 (position) change,” Coon said. “Now the recommendation is 9 and 3, because most cars nowadays have air bags, and as an air bag deploys, if the hands are in front of your face, they can hit you in face.”

The agency considers certain factors regarding senior drivers.

“Senior drivers are among our safest drivers out on the roadway compared with other drivers,” Coon said. “They’re less likely to speed, less likely to drive after drinking, and more likely to wear their seat belts.”

He said older drivers also tend to avoid risky situations such as traveling late at night or during extreme weather.

Driving is a function of ability, not of age, Coon added. “Just because a driver is 75, 85, 95, it doesn’t mean their ability to drive has been compromised. Decisions are made on driver’s ability to drive on a case-by-case basis.”

But senior drivers also should consider diminished vision and reaction time can be factors, he said.

“People need to be aware of that and take steps to enhance,” Coon said. “That can include getting a car that fits you better, and doing exercise and mobility training for better flexibility to turn the head and look in the mirror. There are a number of things an older or senior driver can do.”

When older drivers are in collisions, they have higher rates of fatalities.

Coon said a major reason is frailty. “Crash survival and recovering is just harder. A collision that wouldn’t be much of an issue with a 25-year-old can be a serious issue for a 75-year-old.”

To receive a potential insurance discount based on taking the class, he said Washington state requires a senior to take a driver improvement class every two years. Idaho requires it every three years.

AAA also offers a senior Roadwise Driver course, in an online format, for a potential auto insurance discount. Roadwise costs $15.95 for members and $19.95 for nonmembers.

More information is online at AAA.com, or by calling AAA Washington at (800) 562-2582.

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