In a state taking a close look at older drivers and safety issues, Ted Peterkin and nearly 100 volunteer instructors are providing the tools to help those over 50 stay safely on the road and recognize when it might be time to give up the keys.
Peterkin, 58, of Brandywine, is the AARP Driver Safety state coordinator for Maryland. About 4,500 drivers participate in roughly 300 driver safety classes a year.
The four-hour course is open to any licensed driver but focuses on those 50-plus. The refresher course covers information on laws that may be new or have changed since many participants got their licenses.
"The class is a real benefit for our seniors," said Peterkin, a retired Army staff sergeant. Keeping up with changes to the motor vehicle laws is important.
For example, volunteer instructor Scarlett Watson, 71, of Baltimore, noted that Maryland law requires a car's headlights to be on if the windshield wipers are on. In 2010, a law went into effect that if a police officer or emergency vehicle is stopped on the side of the road, drivers must move away from the vehicle, or slow down if that is not possible.
"A lot of people didn't know about that," Watson said. "You would be surprised how the laws change."
Instructors go over everything from how highway signs look different now than just a few years ago, to how to make left turns properly and how to avoid an accident.
Recognizing the physical changes that accompany aging is also important to help people drive safely. Watson tells participants to watch for changes in eyesight or hearing. She also tells them to be aware of any medication they are taking that might make driving unsafe.
Distracted driving is a big part of the class. "Everyone is a distracted driver now," Peterkin said. The obvious phone talkers and texters can be distracted behind the wheel, but Peterkin said the technology in cars — including new dashboard gadgets such as touch screens or GPS devices — can be distracting for some drivers.
"I make sure all of our seniors are aware of this," Peterkin said.
How to handle road rage is another popular topic.
"I teach them to be patient," said Peterkin. "Just let the person pass and don't make eye contact. You don't know what you are dealing with."
Refresher courses may help drivers' wallets, too. Some companies offer discounts on insurance premiums for drivers who complete a course such as AARP Driver Safety. Peterkin advised drivers to check with their insurance companies for specific details.
A related driver safety seminar addresses the question of when to give up the keys. The "We Need to Talk" online seminar gives guidance for boomers to talk about the issue with their parents, and allows older drivers to start to evaluate their own driving skills.
Another related program for older drivers is CarFit, which is designed to adjust vehicles to fit drivers' bodies and the physical limitations that often come with age. Participants drive their own automobiles to a CarFit session for a free, 20-minute one-on-one assessment.
Out of the 4.1 million licensed drivers in Maryland, more than 1.3 million are 55 and older.
Older drivers are an issue in Maryland after the death of a 20-year-old Johns Hopkins University student in 2011. An 83-year-old woman making a right turn into a driveway struck the student on his bike. As part of a lawsuit settlement with the student's family, the driver agreed to permanently give up her license. The student's family has also been fighting for stricter rules and more frequent testing for older drivers.
Older drivers study
Partly in response to that accident, the General Assembly ordered a study of accident statistics and what the state is doing to keep older drivers on the road safely. An interim report is due in January. A final report, due by the end of 2013, will look at laws around the country affecting older drivers and possibly propose changes to Maryland's laws, said Andrew Krajewski, director of driver safety at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.
That report will include interviews with older drivers about the most effective ways to be screened and what the state can do to help them be safe on the roadways.
"We want to see what are the unique things working in other states and see what viable solutions exist," Krajewski said.
He said the report will likely look at classes like AARP Driver Safety.
For years, Maryland has required drivers 40 and over who renew by mail to provide proof of a vision test. However, Maryland drivers will now be screened less frequently than they had been previously. As of October, the state began to phase in a new law that extends all driver's license renewals to every eight years instead of the current five years.
The AARP Driver Safety course costs $12 for AARP members and $14 for nonmembers. An online course is $15.95 for AARP members; $19.95 for nonmembers. To find a class, enter a ZIP code at the Driver Safety course locator. To volunteer to teach the class, contact Ted Peterkin at Peterkin1@verizon.net to volunteer as a Driver Safety instructor.
Suzanne Struglinski is a freelance writer and editor living in Gaithersburg, Md.
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