As a 19-year-old nursing student with a sky blue Chevrolet sitting in her Lansdale driveway, B.J. Riley wasn't thinking about automobile safety.
"All I knew was that it had four wheels, and, boy, when I got in it, I could go," she said.
Nearly seven decades later, safety — not speed — resonates with Riley, so she recently signed up for a course with AARP Driver Safety.
"I thought I needed a refresher. I'm 88 years old," she said.
The course, taught by volunteers, is aimed at the 3 million Pennsylvania drivers who are 55 or older, including nearly 28,000 licensed drivers 91 or older.
Many class participants recall when roads had just two lanes, cars couldn't talk and drivers hardly ever multitasked.
A Stroudsburg man told his classmates that he had to crank his first car to start it, but that morning he just pointed his remote-start key at the window while sipping his morning coffee.
The course teaches the newest rules of the road, how new car features function and how to compensate for age-related changes in vision, hearing and reaction time.
Know what to watch for
Instructors also show how to spot a collision in the making and steer clear of it. And there's a segment on recognizing when to hang up your keys for good. (One sign: Are there scrapes and bumps on the car that you can't explain?)
Riley, who recently moved back to Lansdale after 25 years in Florida, said she picked up several useful tips at the class.
One may save her life when she drives south to visit her friends: "I learned that you shouldn't use cruise control when it's raining or the roads are wet because you don't have control of your car. The car's going on its own."
The classroom course costs $12 for AARP members and $14 for non-members. An online Driver Safety course is $15.95 for AARP members, $19.95 for nonmembers.
Roland Vonderheide, 79, of Kunkletown, state coordinator for AARP Driver Safety, said an insurance discount is often the initial draw for class attendees.
Pennsylvania requires insurance companies to offer a 5 percent discount on auto insurance to any driver 55 or older who completes the classroom or online course. For the average policyholder, that's a savings of about $45 a year.
Does your car "fit" you?
AARP also offers CarFit, a 20-minute, one-on-one session designed to adjust vehicles to fit drivers' bodies and the physical limitations that often come with age.
Participants drive their own automobiles to a session with CarFit, which is a collaboration of AARP, the American Automobile Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association.
Side-view and rearview mirrors are checked for maximum visual coverage, especially for someone who has less neck mobility. Seat positions are evaluated for optimal safety. Other adjustments — such as a pedal extender — may be recommended.
Stan Rothman, 79, of Lords Valley, an AARP volunteer and national coordinator for CarFit, offered an example:
An occupational therapist provided a work-around for a CarFit participant whose arthritis made it nearly impossible for her to grasp car keys. The key was inserted into a soft, ball-like device large enough to hold comfortably.
Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not have any special requirements for older drivers who renew their licenses.
However, each month, 1,900 drivers over the age of 45 are chosen randomly for retesting when they renew their licenses. Those drivers are required to get a physical exam from their own doctors and to take an eye exam administered by an eye doctor or by licensing officials. If the exam results indicate a driver's exam is required, one will be administered.
To find a class, enter a ZIP code in the AARP Driver Safety course locator. To volunteer as an instructor, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To volunteer with CarFit, email Rothman at email@example.com.
A free seminar, "We Need to Talk," is for friends and family members who want to have a discussion about when to give up the keys and plan alternatives.
Kathryn Canavan is a writer living in Wilmington, Del.
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