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PEOPLE : SENIORS : Driving Home Their Point : Motorists over 50 are being urged to take refresher courses. Studies show accidents and injuries are reduced by 16%.

October 23, 1992|JOHN MORELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; John Morell writes regularly for Valley Life.

Margaret Simon of Encino has held a California driver's license for 48 years. When her son told her about driving classes for senior citizens, the 79-year-old bristled. "I don't think of myself as 'old.' I'm independent, and I don't need the help of anyone."

But after learning that she would get a 5% reduction in her car insurance premium, Simon reluctantly agreed to enroll in a class at the West Valley Senior Citizens Center in Reseda. "I was expecting to see a group of gray-haired people in walkers, but most were younger than me. The class taught me that I should be more careful on the road. I don't have the reflexes of a 20-year-old, haven't had them for a long time."

The eight-hour class she took in two four-hour stints is basically a refresher course that covers health issues for senior citizens and defensive driving. "It's a way to make people aware of their limitations as they get older," says Phillip Caudillo, who conducts driving classes through his Mature Driver Improvement Service, based in Canoga Park. "The insurance discount is the incentive to get them to come, but once they're here they may realize they shouldn't be on the road."

The classes became popular after passage of the state's Mature Driver Improvement Law in July, 1987, which mandated an insurance discount of at least 5% for individuals over age 50 who completed one. About 12 classes per month are given by small companies like Caudillo's and senior citizen organizations through the San Fernando Valley. The cost varies from $8 to $21 per student.

"People who take the courses say that they've become better drivers, and the statistics prove that," said Paul Wilson, state coordinator for 55 Alive, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the American Assn. of Retired People that holds classes around the state. "A study in 1989 showed that among the group of people who took the class, there was a 16% reduction in the number of injuries and accidents."

Pete Velci, 58, a semi-retired carpenter from Northridge, was attracted to the class by the idea of the insurance rate cut, but got more out of it than he expected. "It's sobering to see how aging affects the way you drive. I wish my father had taken a class like this. He died in a car accident when he was 76."

The Department of Motor Vehicles issues permits for individuals who want to teach the Mature Driver classes, and most classes are held at community centers, hospitals, churches and synagogues. "One of the most difficult parts of this job is getting organizations to sponsor classes and getting publicity for them," Wilson said. "In 1991, we reached a goal of having 1% of the state's population over age 50 take a class, 55,000 people. We thought we might be able to reach 2% this year, but it looks like we'll hit 1% again."

"It's essential for everyone over 50 to take the class; it can save a life," said Ann Feuer, a coordinator for ElderMed America, which sponsors classes at Northridge Hospital. "When you get older, your mobility and independence are priceless and contribute to your self-esteem. You just can't count on public transportation in Southern California, which is why being a safe driver is so important."

The basic curriculum for the courses deals with how aging affects driving skills and how an older driver can compensate for those effects. "Hearing loss is a common problem among people as they get older," Wilson said. "We try to show them how important it is that they hear well while driving, and how they can compensate for poor hearing."

"Deaf people tend to have better driving records than hearing people," said Caudillo during a recent class. "The reason is they're much more visually alert because they can't rely on their hearing. The key is to look for trouble while you drive."

Wilson suggests that hearing-impaired drivers turn down their radios while driving. "It's more important to hear a siren than a song on the stereo. Keep your air-conditioning and heater fans on low to reduce noise, and make sure your exhaust system is in good condition to reduce the sound of the engine."

Other physical problems such as stiffness and pain in the neck and back are harder to compensate for. "When driving you need to be able to turn your head to check the blind spots behind you, there's no way around that. If you have that problem, have a doctor show you exercises you can do to make it easier."

Medications for problems such as hypertension can affect driving skills, and students are warned about driving under the influence of any drug. "We talk a lot about how illnesses and drugs affect people. Not surprisingly, people who come into the class feeling fine start feeling lousy after we go over the medical part of the class," Caudillo said.

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