Photo by Andy Richter/Aurora Select
Last February, Rich Dohrmann, 75, had a split second to decide what to do when an oncoming car crossed the center line. He evaded a potentially fatal crash by using a strategy he has been teaching for years as a volunteer instructor in the AARP Driver Safety Program.
"We teach our participants to avoid a head-on crash by braking hard and steering to the right, and that's exactly what I did."
See also: Why take a driver safety course?
Dohrmann, of Eden Prairie, who coordinates the driver safety classes for the Twin Cities and southeastern Minnesota, said he knew he couldn't prevent a collision. But his avoidance maneuver resulted in the two vehicles only sideswiping — instead of plowing into — each other at speeds approaching 50 miles per hour.
Heavily damaged, both cars wound up in the ditch, along with another car and a pickup truck that had been traveling behind each of them. No one was injured.
41,000 take class in 2010
AARP Minnesota operates one of the national organization's largest driver safety programs. That's mainly because a 24-year-old state law requires insurance companies to shave 10 percent off annual insurance premiums for anyone 55 or older who participates in a certified safety program. In 2010, AARP Minnesota conducted more than 2,000 classes for 41,000 participants.
The eight-hour class is conducted over two days in community centers or other venues. It is open to drivers of any age but is geared toward people 50 and older.
After the initial class, drivers can retain the insurance discount by attending AARP's four-hour refresher course every three years.
"The program probably touches the most people directly of any volunteer program we have," said Michele Kimball, AARP Minnesota state director.
The 400 volunteer instructors in Minnesota include a national leader: Jacque "Jack" Block, 68, of Columbia Heights.
A retired telephone technician, Block has been teaching safety classes since 1989 and is one of only four AARP volunteers in the nation who have taught more than 10,000 participants.
At a recent four-hour refresher course, many of the 30 participants nodded when Block told them that the purpose of the class was to reinforce many of the driving techniques they already knew. An introductory film predicts: "Most of you will learn at least one new thing today."
Dorothy Rither, 82, of Spring Lake Park, a veteran of one of Block's previous classes, said that was true for her.
"One thing I learned the last time is that when I'm stopped and preparing to turn left, I shouldn't steer the car into the turn too early."
Three rights make a left
A few minutes later, she smiled in agreement when Block said that one of the hardest things for older drivers is safely executing a left turn in city driving.
He suggested that participants think about circling around the intersection by making a series of safer right turns.
"Two wrongs don't make a right, but three rights do make a left," he said, prompting chuckles.
AARP members pay $12 to attend Driver Safety Program classes; nonmembers pay $14. To find a class near you, enter your ZIP code at aarp.org/findacourse.
Online classes in Spanish or English are $15.95 for AARP members, $19.95 for nonmembers. However, insurance premium discounts are not offered to Minnesotans who take the online course.
To volunteer to become a driver safety instructor, call toll-free 1-888-227-7669.
"It's an incredible program," Kimball said. "These are some of the most dedicated volunteers AARP has, and the service they are giving is literally saving lives."
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David Hawley is a writer living in Edina, Minn.
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