Mary Jean Hebenstreit, 69, got a harsh reminder to sharpen her driving skills when the police pulled her over last year for speeding. "It was the first time I've ever been stopped."
See also: Why take a driver safety class?
The ticket rattled Hebenstreit, of Gillespie, and persuaded her to enroll in the AARP Driver Safety Program, a two-day refresher course for older drivers.
And there was a bonus.
Illinois residents 55 and older who complete a driver safety class are eligible for insurance discounts of about $20 to $150 a year, depending on the policy and their driving record, said Harold Sterling, one of two volunteer Midwest regional coordinators of the AARP Driver Safety Program. The class must be retaken every three years to keep the discount. He advised motorists to ask their insurance companies for details.
"One of the best ways for seniors to maintain mobility and independence is through driver safety programs," said Sterling, 69, of Schaumburg.
AARP's class covers the latest approaches to safe driving, traffic strategies and the touchy question of when to stop driving.
For many older people, "to stay independent means continuing to drive," said Merri Dee, state president of AARP Illinois. "It is increasingly important that older drivers have the skills they need to remain safe on the roads."
About 3.5 million Illinois drivers are over age 50, and older drivers face a number of challenges.
Some rules of the road have changed since they first learned to drive. For example, a new state law requires a driver transporting a disabled person to secure the passenger in a seat belt. Also, today's cars have new features, such as lane departure warning systems, that didn't exist when older drivers got their first vehicles.
Also, age-related changes in a driver's vision, hearing and reaction time require strategies to compensate.
Cathi Watson, 77, and her husband, Bill, 83, enrolled in the class even though they were both experienced drivers. The Schaumburg residents were surprised at how much they had forgotten since first learning to drive.
After the class, Cathi Watson shared her favorite tip: Avoid left turns against traffic. Sometimes it's better to drive a few more blocks and make several right turns instead, she said. "That could prevent an accident."
The classroom course costs $12 for AARP members, $14 for non-members. The online class is $15.95 for members, $19.95 for non-members. However, not all Illinois insurance providers offer discounts for people who take the online class.
Peoria resident Joe Bender got much more from the class than a discount; it may have saved his life.
Bender once avoided a serious accident because he remembered the three-second rule: Stay at least three seconds behind the car ahead. "It gave me enough time to swerve into the median," he said.
A volunteer instructor for 26 years, Bender, 90, has taught about 4,000 drivers.
In 2010 he was given the AARP Illinois Andrus Award for Community Service (PDF).
Last year, about 13,000 Illinois drivers took the course. Online courses are available in both English and Spanish.
Sterling said more volunteer instructors are needed, particularly in Illinois' rural areas. Volunteer candidates must take the class, complete an eight-hour training session and teach three practice sessions under the direction of experienced instructors.
To locate a classroom course near you, find an online course or to volunteer, visit the AARP Driver Safety website or call1-888-227-7669 toll-free.
Jane Adler is a writer living in Wilmette, Ill.
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