Photo by Zach Dobson
Les Pence is a self-described "car guy," a child of the muscle car era and a lover of all things Corvette-related. But at 77, Pence can foresee a day when age may force him to give up driving.
These days, Pence derives satisfaction in helping older Hoosiers refresh and retool their driving skills — and stay safely on the road as long as possible — as a volunteer instructor in AARP's Driver Safety Program.
See also: Why take a driver safety course?
In the past five years, Pence and his fellow instructors have taught more than 5,000 Indiana drivers techniques to compensate for the hearing and vision changes and slower reflexes that are often a part of aging.
"The class gives people an opportunity to refresh their skills, and that will, most importantly, keep them from possibly having an accident," said Pence, a retired school superintendent from Sheridan.
Tips for crowded roads
Pence said the four-hour class also helps older drivers navigate more confidently on today's faster, more complicated and crowded roadways.
There are about 125 traffic circles in Hamilton County, he said. "Many older drivers have no clue how to deal with roundabouts. Roundabouts weren't around when they started driving. They don't know what lane to get in; they don't know how to get out once they get in."
The class also touches on the sensitive topic of when to stop driving. Giving up driving "is a very difficult decision that many people have to think about," Pence said. When it's that time for him, "it will just tear my heart out."
When retiree David Daley, 69, of Rolling Prairie, took the course two years ago, he especially appreciated the tips he picked up on scanning the roadway —a method of systematically looking ahead to be alert to potential hazards.
"Now I try to watch out for people who drive like I used to," he said with a chuckle. "You learn not to take it for granted that you have the right of way."
The experience led Daley to become a volunteer instructor. It was a logical choice, since he had worked for years as an industrial safety officer.
AARP has offered driver education programs since 1969. Over the years, the program gained in popularity, especially after many insurance companies began offering discounts to older people who complete a driver safety course.
Though Indiana doesn't require insurance companies to offer discounts to drivers who complete a safe-driving course, many companies do, said Harold Sterling, one of the Midwest regional coordinators of the Driver Safety Program. He said discount offers vary by company, so drivers should check with their insurance agent.
More instructors needed
In Indiana, AARP's Driver Safety Program entered a rebuilding phase earlier this year with the appointment of Jerry Bultemeier, 55, of Decatur, as the program coordinator.
His top priority is to recruit more instructors and build a network of two instructors in each of Indiana's 92 counties.
Prospective instructors must take the class and then complete an instructor training course. Bultemeier said volunteer instructors must commit to teaching at least three courses a year.
Bultemeier, a retired Adams County Sheriff's Department officer, also said additional locations are needed for the classes.
AARP members pay $12 to attend Driver Safety Program classes; nonmembers pay $14. To find a class near you, enter your ZIP code at aarp.org/findacourse.
Online classes in Spanish or English are $15.95 for AARP members, $19.95 for nonmembers.
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Julie Creek is a writer living in Fort Wayne, Ind.