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Making New York Driving Safer for All

Volunteers help aging drivers stay skilled behind the wheel and get a discount on car insurance

Sam Eskander, Driver Safety instructor, saftey class, Driving Resource Center

Lori Grinker

Sam Eskander, 67, of Scarsdale, the nation’s top AARP Driver Safety instructor last year, demonstrates the limits of peripheral vision at a recent class.

Sam Eskander volunteered to be a teacher for AARP Driver Safety after he took the class in 2006. He was the nation's top instructor last year, teaching the highest number of courses (76) and the most participants (1,715).

"I tell them that if anyone believes they haven't learned anything from the class, I will give them their money back," Eskander, 67, said. "It's never happened."

Last year, roughly 700 volunteers like Eskander taught the course to more than 100,000 New Yorkers.

AARP Driver Safety classes are open to drivers of any age but geared to those 50 and older.

In New York, insurance companies are required to give a 10 percent discount to drivers who complete a safety program, whether in person or online. The discount is good for three years but can be extended if they take a refresher course. Motorists can get up to four points taken off moving violation points they received on their license.

During a typical six-hour class, Eskander reviews basic safety strategies, such as scanning the road, staying alert and leaving enough distance to the car in front. He also covers how alcohol and medication can affect driving responses.

Dealing with aging

The material covers the inevitable changes in hearing, sight and reflexes that often come with aging and how to compensate for them.

The instructor then segues into a painful topic: how to know when it is time to stop driving. Participants fill out a skills assessment of their driving ability.

"I give them tools — how to stay independent without a car, where to get free transportation," said Eskander, who lives in Scarsdale.

Giving back

Eskander arrived in the United States from Egypt in 1968 and earned a degree in engineering. His positions included a stint as executive director of engineering at Yale School of Medicine.

After retiring, Eskander wanted to give back to his adopted country. "My two kids are doctors," he explained. "I feel blessed. It's time to help people."

In addition to teaching, Eskander is one of eight volunteer deputy state coordinators for Driver Safety. His duties include recruiting and mentoring instructors and finding facilities to host classes, such as libraries and churches.

"The more people I reach, the more satisfaction and pleasure I get," he said.

For decades, Theresa Pellegrino, 80, of Cheektowaga, has regularly taken the Driver Safety refresher course for the insurance discount. But she also enjoys it.

"Once I'm there, I find out different things I'm doing wrong."

At a recent class she took from Richard Alessi, also of Cheektowaga, Pellegrino learned that, if possible, she was supposed to move over one lane when another car is merging onto the highway to make way for a car merging from a ramp.

Pellegrino's experience is common. "After the class, a lot of people come up and tell me that I've taught them things that they had forgotten," said Alessi, 78, a retired materials engineer. In his 22 years with the Driver Safety program, he has taught more than 12,400 participants in 460 classes.

Alessi also became a volunteer after taking the Driver Safety course. He is also a district coordinator, responsible for training new instructors, processing paperwork and handling expenses.

In New York, the Driver Safety class costs $17 for AARP members and $19 for nonmembers. This November, classroom courses are free to veterans and their families and half-price for online courses.

Online classes in Spanish or English are $23.95 for AARP members; $27.95 for nonmembers. You can find out about an AARP Driver Safety session in your area by entering your ZIP code online at the AARP Driver Safety Course Locator page or call 888-227-7669 toll-free.

Donna Jackel is a freelance journalist who lives in Rochester, N.Y.

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