Are you a driver 65 or older?
While driving, have you had several close calls or a near crash in the past three years?
Do you worry that while driving you might make a mistake and get hurt or hurt someone else?
Do you get nervous, agitated or irritated while driving?
When assessing your own driving, these are the kinds of questions that should be asked. Does answering yes mean that you must stop driving? No, it doesn’t. But answering yes does mean that you may want to consider what could be done to be a safer driver. This article examines an important option for older drivers—AARP’s Smart DriverTM Course.
Older Drivers and Risk
In 2012, there were 5,560 people 65 and older killed and 214,000 injured in motor vehicle traffic crashes. These older people made up 17 percent of all traffic fatalities and 9 percent of all people injured in traffic crashes during the year. Compared to 2011, fatalities among people 65 and older and injured people in this age group increased by 16 percent.
When looking at the vehicle fatality rate by age, there is a noticeable curve.  For young drivers where the fatality rate is the highest, the cause is a mixture of actions, primarily all related to inexperience and/or risky behavior. But for drivers over 70, inexperience is clearly not the reason. Some people think that when we reach a certain age, we can no longer be safe on the road. Those individuals are wrong. Being an older driver does not mean an inability to drive, but it can mean an increased fragility. Older drivers are more likely to die in crashes that younger people may survive. Being an older driver requires greater awareness and understanding of any limitations because of aging.
Changes are Happening
Growing old is not about ending your activities. Growing old is about understanding that everything changes: ones physical abilities, the cars driven, the roads used, and the laws applied. It is about understanding these changes and learning what can be done about them. “Things change” is the theme throughout the AARP Smart Driver Course.
Recently I had the great opportunity to sit in on a Smart Driver course. Approximately 30 people were present, learning about safe driving and when they were asked who had been driving for 50 years or longer, a majority raised their hands.
Ralph Rosenthal, the instructor in his 12th year of teaching safe driving for AARP, stated at the outset of the course that as we age, change happens no matter what we do. What is important, he noted, is to recognize that as we slow down, we can make adjustments and adapt.
AARP Smart Driver
Recently revised, the Smart Driver course is a two-day, four hour per day course, providing research-based information on what it means to be a safer driver and how to achieve that goal. But saying “research-based” does not mean the course is all about dry numbers and statistics.
Using the Guidebook, and showing a number of short videos to supplement the material, Ralph engages with those in attendance providing tips, suggestions, and a local flavor for each of the particular topics.
Each chapter in the Guidebook starts with an important question that gets answered, such as:
- Why Are We Here?
- What’s Changing?
- What Practices Make Us Safer?
- What [Safe Driving] Strategies Apply?
- What About the Future?
- What Have We Learned?
Some of the topics cover current traffic safety issues, such as:
- Medication and drugged driving
- Distracted driving
- Drowsy driving
- Aggressive driving, and
- Changing vehicles and technologies.
But many of the topics are specifically geared towards older drivers such as vision and hearing concerns and remaining flexible to be able to drive.
It is Not About a Number
Ralph pointed out that it is not a person’s numerical age that determines ability to drive; it is the person’s mindset and capabilities. He knows someone who is 91-years-old and drives over 30,000 miles each year to visit family and friends. Discussing a seat belt and airbag’s interaction, using anti-lock brakes, proper mirror settings, and driving in roundabouts are all topics designed to raise the awareness and improve everyone’s capabilities.
Probably the main frustration expressed during the course was on safety. While discussing incorporating a safe following distance from other cars and trucks, and using blinkers when changing lanes, a few of the participants noted how the other drivers on the road don’t observe safe driving. In response, Ralph pointed out that the participants can only control their own driving and do everything possible to keep themselves safe.
The Complete Package
AARP’s Smart Driver course is only part of the effort to ensure drivers have the necessary skills to continue driving, as they grow older. AARP has developed a number of resources for older drivers. Going to AARP Driver Safety will provide you a number of options. First, you can register for the two-day course, or for the on-line Smart Driver course. Also at Driver Safety you can find “Car Fit” which helps older drivers determine if their cars are properly adjusted for them. The “Driving Resource Center” is designed to continue improving a person’s knowledge and skills, and finally, for those individuals that have parents or grandparents who may not be as safe as they should be, “We Need to Talk” provides the necessary tools to have that important conversation.
During a break, I had the chance to speak with Ralph and ask him what he thought of the course. “I have a choice of what I do in my volunteer life, and this is a program that has been quit worthwhile,” said Ralph. “As long as the folks taking my course learn something, I’ll keep doing it. People actually send me letters, they call me and they send me letters after the course, and they let me know ‘what you taught me actually saved my life’.” Ralph and the other Smart Driver instructors are saving lives every day. What better reason to attend can there be, but to know that Smart Driver saves lives?
What do you think? Have you attended the course? Did it help you?
Highway to Safety Podcast: Senior Driving – Be Proactive and Understand Your Limitations
Traffic Safety Guy Blog: Senior Drivers – To Drive or Not To Drive
 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Older Population Traffic Safety Facts, 2012 Data, DOT HS 812 005, March 2014.  Addressing the Safety Issues Related to Younger and Older Drivers, NHTSA, Image: Fatality Rate per Thousand Licensed Drivers by Age Group