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Driver's Ed for Grownups

Sooner or later, even driving know-it-alls find out how much they don't know

Sooner or later, even well-schooled know-it-alls find out how much they don't know.

I learned this at AARP Driver Safety. I also learned a number of ways to avoid killing myself. I never thought I'd attend another driving school, but there I was. Seventeen of us were sitting at classroom desks in the Margaret Sherry Library in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Our instructor for AARP Driver Safety course was Roger Hayes, a cheery and bespectacled fifty-something who would win anyone's Richard Dreyfuss-look-alike contest. A professional driving instructor who does most of his work behind the wheel, Hayes teaches classes just for AARP, and like other AARP instructors, he is a volunteer.

"Why are we all here?" a smiling Hayes asked in his opening remarks, answering his own question: "The discount. Right?"

To a person, my classmates nodded. They were there to get an AARP driving-school certificate so they could extract discounts from their insurers. He made it quickly apparent he intended to teach us things about good driving that just might keep us out of the emergency room. Fatalities per miles driven continue to fall, but traffic accidents still wipe out more than 40,000 Americans each year. Drivers over 65 are involved in more crashes per mile than drivers ages 30 to 64 — and we survive them less well.

Hayes' intentions notwithstanding, I did not expect to add materially to my body of driving knowledge. I've written about cars since the 1970s, and I have attended every imaginable kind of driving school, from racing schools to police schools to an anti-terrorist school. I've written no telling how many columns on bad driving and road-going stupidity. Cars and I are as close as dirt on a mud flap, so how much could I learn?

A lot, as it turned out. Once we finished our introductions and welcoming pleasantries, Hayes administered a quiz. I missed six of its 15 questions — which works out to a 60. Where I grew up, a 60 worked out to an F. I felt my ears getting red.

Thankfully, I reflected, no one else knew I was a dunce. We didn't have to turn in the test papers, which were included in our 122-page student workbooks. I resolved to destroy mine on graduation day. We would cover more than 300 workbook bullet points in the two four-hour sessions we spent in the class.

Some rules of the road

Act your age: As time goes by, you undergo subtle physical changes that center around your vision, hearing, and general stamina. Impaired hearing, in particular, is one of life's sure things. It constitutes a clear and present danger to drivers of all ages, and it can quickly combine with diminished concentration and lengthened reaction times to put you in harm's way. "Remember that hearing aids can only make things louder, not clearer," said classmate E. B. Kitchens, a retired, ramrod-straight general who looked as if he could order his ears to work — but who wore hearing aids anyway.

Focus: You are in your vehicle to do one thing: drive. You are not there to eat, drink, do the morning crossword puzzle, or make eye contact with passengers in the rear seat. Hayes and I turned out to have a shared antipathy: cell phones. He dislikes them on principle, because they invade his privacy. I dislike them because I don't want some distracted dimwit driving into my trunk lid while he's talking with his wife's divorce lawyer.

Next: Eight more "rules." >>

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