A problem: Many of us haven't had a refresher since we walked out of the DMV with our first driver's licenses decades ago. That's despite the fact that the driving landscape has changed considerably over the years — including increasingly advanced high-tech safety systems in automobiles.
A solution: AARP Driver Safety, an always-evolving program, first launched in 1979 as “55 Alive,” to keep older drivers safe and independent by reinforcing their skills and — especially these days — helping them stay up to date with new technology.
Since its inception, more than 16 million participants have completed the program, including the flagship course, AARP Smart Driver, a driving refresher class that takes place in classrooms across the country and is also available online. (See other courses described below.)
The secret to the Driver Safety program's success? Thousands of volunteers — most of them older drivers themselves.
"The heart and soul of our program is our 5,000 volunteers, who instruct the approximately 20,000 classroom courses across the country,” says Kyle Rakow, vice president and national director of AARP Driver Safety.
Volunteers’ backgrounds are as diverse as the makes and models of cars today. Betty-Coe de Broekert, 88, of Springfield, Ore., is a former teacher. Marcus Vinson, 69, of Wesley Chapel, Fla., worked as an engineer at General Motors. John Case, 65, of Peoria, Ariz., is a former military instructor.
They often start as participants who reach out to their instructors about volunteering opportunities; all potential volunteers are asked to fill out a short online application.
You don't need any particular qualifications beyond having the time and enthusiasm to help others and a comfort speaking in front of a group; you'll be trained in the material before you start teaching.
Time commitment varies. Some instructors do the minimum of three classes a year, while others might do a course every week. For those who also take on managerial or marketing positions, in addition to their instructor duties, it may be a full-time job — one that they take very seriously.
"Things are much more complicated now than when we first started driving,” Vinson says. “Cars have changed. Roads have changed. Laws have changed. And we've changed. It breeds an opportunity for people to say, ‘I've got to get reacquainted with driving to feel more comfortable on the road.’ “
And, let's face it, it's in everyone's interest for other drivers to be skilled. “I tell my classes: ‘I share the road with you. If you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, I worry less,’ “ Case says.
The reasons for volunteering are many. De Broekert says it offers “an opportunity to keep my mind and body active and challenged.” And there's the gratification that comes from giving back: “Our job in life, especially at this age, is to see what we can do for others,” says Nancy Aluck, 77, of Brandon, Fla., who volunteers with her husband. “This program fulfills that — meeting people who may have a difficult time getting out but still have an automobile. If we can make them safer and help them drive several years yet, we feel very good about it.”
It's also, frankly, a lot of fun. “I enjoy the back-and-forth,” Vinson says. “When I open up the class, people ask, ‘What did you do for a living?’ I tell them that I used to work for one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world. Then we have a discussion about who made the best cars or a spirited debate about which car is the safest car, or the most fun drive. We share stories and reminisce about driving. ‘Remember your first car? Did you have air-conditioning? Power windows?’ It's an opportunity for people who have been behind the wheel for many years to remember the good old drives."
And then there are those special moments. “I had a 77-year-old woman who attended one of the courses because her kids insisted,” recalls instructor Sherry Kolodziejczak, 58, of Huntsville, Ala. “She came in with that chip on her shoulder, telling me, ‘I'm only here because I have to be. How long is this going to take?’ Eventually, she started to lean in and pay attention, and after the first break, moved herself from the very back of the room to the front.
When the course ended, she told me, ‘I feel in my heart that I'm a safe driver, but I'm going to do those other AARP driver programs to see what they're all about.’ That was a good Driver Safety moment,” Kolodziejczak says.
AARP Driver Safety courses:
Smart Driver. The flagship driver refresher course is held online and all over the country, in neighborhood libraries, senior centers, hospitals, churches, car dealerships, restaurants, you name it. ("Literally, anywhere you could think of setting up a classroom,” Rakow says.)
Smart DriverTEK, one of the newest offerings, helps drivers understand the ever-evolving vehicle safety technologies.
CarFit, a free event-based program, is designed to “custom-fit” drivers to their vehicles, assessing everything from the positioning of the side-view and rearview mirrors to checking accessibility to the brake pedal.
We Need to Talk, a seminar available in classrooms and online, provides advice on how to recognize when it's time to limit or stop driving, advice on how to approach this often-delicate topic with a loved one, as well as information on alternative transportation in your area.