Photo by John Fedele
Aileen Shmuger well remembers the day she took a St. Louis streetcar down Grand Avenue to get her first driver's license at age 16.
That was 60 years ago, and Shmuger still drives. Driving has changed greatly since she was a teenager, and so has Shmuger. That's why she recently spent an afternoon with more than a dozen other older people in an AARP Driver Safety Program class in St. Louis.
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"Everything that becomes a habit isn't always good," she said.
Shmuger is among the nearly 1,000 Missourians who have taken the four-hour class this year. They're among more than 355,000 people across the country who have participated in similar classes.
Many take the class to get a reduction in their car insurance premiums. Unlike some states, Missouri does not require insurance companies to give a discount for taking the class, but a few companies give a 5 to 10 percent discount.
"Everybody who takes the class comes away with at least one good thing," said Quentin Ruchte, 77, coordinator of the Missouri Driver Safety Program. "And it might save a life."
Ruchte noted that few older people took driving courses when they learned to drive.
"Continuing education is important because things change," he said. "The rules of the road change, and people change."
No test involved
The class has two main objectives: teaching participants defensive-driving techniques and adjusting to age-related changes. No driving is involved, and there's no test. The cost is $15 for AARP members and $20 for nonmembers. To register for the class, visit the Driver Safety Program website or call 1-888-227-7669 toll-free.
The online course costs $19.95 for members and $24.95 for nonmembers.
Jim Clemmons, 72, is the volunteer director for AARP's South Central region. He's been a safe-driving instructor for 10 years, first in Washington state and now in Battlefield, near Springfield.
Left turns present one of the biggest challenges for older drivers, he said. Two of the most common — and dangerous — mistakes are pulling out in front of someone coming the other way and turning into the wrong lane.
"Anytime you're in a right-of-way situation, potentially, as you age, you've got a problem," he said. Instead of making dangerous left turns, class participants are advised to make three right turns when possible.
As people age, their reaction time is slower. "So if you go to hit the brakes, you've traveled another 20 to 30 feet compared to a younger person," Clemmons said. "You need to learn how to compensate for that by better spacing between you and the car in front of you."
And, like everyone else, older drivers also need to remember to look over their shoulders when changing lanes to compensate for the blind spot on all vehicles. "Seniors forget, or their neck may be sore, so they don't turn their head," Clemmons said. "They rely on mirrors too much."
Volunteer teachers needed
Knowing when it's time to stop driving is another topic addressed in the class.
"It is a very touchy subject," said Denny Staub, 72, who teaches a driver safety class in St. Louis. Frequent horn blowing by other drivers, unexplained scratches or dents in the car or multiple traffic tickets are among the signs it might be time to hang up the car keys for good. "We encourage other family members to ride with them," so that relatives can assess their skills, Staub said.
AARP Missouri is always looking for potential teachers, who are trained and certified before they can teach; and for groups willing to host classes at their facilities. If you are interested in teaching, or your facility is interested in hosting the course, call 636-677-0801.
Staub, a former high school driving instructor and football coach, is in his 11th year as a teacher. He finds it very satisfying.
"You always walk away thinking, 'I helped somebody,' " he said.