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.
Stay on the ball: Have you ever realized that you don't have a clear recollection of the preceding few minutes? I have. And who among us hasn't gotten all wrapped up in the latest Sue Grafton mystery on tape and wondered where the last 50 miles went? It's this simple: If you don't have your mind on your driving, you won't react correctly — or quickly — when some fool puts you at risk. If you don't see it in time, you won't avoid it in time.
Keep out of harm's way: Failing to yield right of way gets drivers in trouble more often than anything else, according to Hayes. So when do you have right of way? Actually, never. "There are instances when you must yield the right of way — at a yield sign, for example — but no instances where you are given the right of way," said Hayes.
Get straight about turning: Think of intersections as danger zones. You can't be too careful when you're entering, leaving, or trying to turn out of one. And when you're waiting to turn left, keep your wheels pointed straight ahead — so you won't be pushed into oncoming traffic should you be rear-ended.
Exercise your neck: You'll want the muscles supple so you can turn your head and see your blind spots. Mirrors are useful devices known to inspire puzzlement if not outright disdain in drivers of any age. You must use your mirrors, and you must use them properly. Some of my auto-writer colleagues maintain that it is possible to adjust the two side mirrors and the inside mirror in such a way that you eliminate blind spots. They are wrong. "You've got to turn your head and check the blind spot before you change lanes," Hayes said.
Do the math: Remember that old high school driver's ed rule of keeping one car length between your vehicle and the one you're following for every 10 miles per hour of speed? It works, but most folks can't accurately project, say, five car lengths on the pavement in front of them, so Hayes advised a better way: pick a spot that the car in front passes and count the seconds. "If you pass the same spot before you've had a chance to count 'one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three,' you're too close." Add a second for rain and two to three seconds for fog or slippery conditions. "There is no advantage to being close to the car in front of you," said Hayes.
Learn from your mistakes: Hayes discussed close calls and taught us to do more than just execute a sharp intake of breath after a near miss. "Ask questions. Could I have avoided the situation? Should I have reacted differently? Was there something I failed to see?"
Watch for off-the-road hazards: Car safety isn't only about driving. "I parked between two big vans in the Walmart lot, because the place was close to the door," said Hayes, who loved to tell stories on himself. "But you can't see your car when it's blocked on both sides. So when I got back, my hubcaps were gone." He suggested seeking well-lighted parking places at night.
Think some hard thoughts: We ended our class work with our workbook's Chapter 11. "We call this the dismal chapter," said Hayes. And it was. Not because it suggested bankruptcy, but because it dealt with the day when our physical condition dictates that we give up the privilege of driving. That's not a heartwarming thought, but sooner or later it happens to all of us.
Our last act before Hayes handed out our certificates was to retake the original test. I scored 100 and don't have red ears anymore. And I think I've put some distance between me and Chapter 11. I suggest that you do likewise.
William Jeanes is the former editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine. This article was originally published in the September/October 2005 issue of AARP The Magazine.