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Refresher Classes Help Seniors Stay Safe on Road

Older motorists seek to sharpen their skills and become more responsible. They also receive a discount on their insurance.

August 26, 2003|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

In this classroom of students, 55-year-old Renee Palmer is a relative youngster.

The assistant principal of a Hollywood elementary school believes wholeheartedly in continuing education. So it feels natural, she said, to take a course to improve her driving skills.

"I can no longer be in denial, the fact that I am aging," said Palmer, looking up from a workbook at a recent Santa Monica class for senior drivers. "The response time is not as quick as it was when you're younger."

As America turns increasingly gray, with more older motorists on the road, people like Palmer are turning to refresher courses to sharpen their know-how and become more responsible when they're behind the wheel.

Some are motivated by a desire to maintain their driving privileges as long as possible. A bonus, many admit, is a discount on their auto insurance once they finish the course. Still others -- horrified by the farmers market tragedy in Santa Monica last month -- seek to learn skills targeted for older drivers or to recognize when they shouldn't be driving anymore.

Last month, an 86-year-old driver steered into the crowded Santa Monica Farmers' Market, killing 10 people and injuring 79. George Russell Weller, who told police he might have mistaken his gas pedal for the brake, has not been charged with any crimes, though his driver's license was revoked. An investigation is pending.

In the meantime, organizers of refresher courses for senior drivers say they are experiencing a surge in interest. Local AARP offices are receiving twice as many calls as before the Santa Monica incident. In the past month, enrollment in classes offered by the Automobile Club of Southern California increased 29%.

Even before the crash focused national attention on elder driving issues, the statistics were unsettling.

Drivers older than 69 are more than twice as likely to be involved in left-hand turn accidents and seven times more likely to be killed or injured in a crash than younger motorists, according to a 2000 study published in Annals of Emergency Medicine. Mile for mile, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, elderly drivers suffer higher fatality rates than all but the youngest drivers.

On a recent morning, Palmer and about 20 other students -- some well into their 80s -- packed into a room at Wise Senior Services in Santa Monica for their AARP driving course.

"Do you know that timid drivers are as dangerous as aggressive drivers?" volunteer instructor Jackie Ploen asked her students. "How many of you think your reaction time is slowing down?"

Hands floated up around the room.

Ploen, the associate state coordinator of AARP's driver safety program, reviewed some basic tips reminiscent of high school driver's ed: Before changing lanes, check for traffic in your blind spot by glancing over your shoulder. Turn your head to look out the rear window when you're backing up. Slow down when you're in rain or fog; the posted speed limit is intended for perfect, sunny driving conditions.

But she also offered advice and a lesson plan -- guided by California Department of Motor Vehicle standards -- tailored to her senior audience.

Many people develop vision problems later in life, like cataracts, farsightedness, glaucoma or macular degeneration. The key is knowing your limitations and learning how to adjust, like having regular eye exams and avoiding driving at night, Ploen said.

The hearing-impaired can compensate by keeping the radio volume low and air conditioner fan turned down while leaving the car window partly open.

And medication can be just as dangerous as alcohol. For instance, common analgesics for arthritis can cause drowsiness and inability to concentrate, while drugs to lower blood pressure can cause dizziness and blurred vision.

For an exercise on reaction time, Ploen asked students to locate, in sequential order with their index finger, 14 numbered dots scattered on a workbook page in 10 seconds.

How did everyone do?

"Very average. Or less," said Jack Armstrong, 80, looking away.

"Poorly. He did poorly," his wife, Patricia, corrected him.

The Armstrongs, of Marina del Rey, have taken the course three times -- once every three years -- to renew their discounted car insurance. But they also are picking up important lessons along the way. Jack used to be the primary driver, but they now realize he has trouble focusing his attention. So Patricia, 74, does most of the driving now.

Exercises like find-the-dots "really brings it home to you," Jack Armstrong said. "You think you're good, but you're not.... I'm thinking about not driving anymore."

Others said they hoped that the course, by making them more conscientious about safety and how to compensate for the effects of aging, will allow them to keep driving for years to come.

"It's a terrible thing to have to stop driving," said Betty Klapman, a 74-year-old retired teacher in Santa Monica. "I'm very active. If I couldn't drive, it would be plenty tough."

For more information on AARP's Driver Safety Program, call (888) 227-7669 or visit

For classes offered by the Automobile Club of Southern California, call (800) 222-8794 or visit insurance/auto/safe.asp.

If you have a question, gripe or story idea about driving in Southern California, write to Behind the Wheel c/o Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or send an e-mail to

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