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Who taught YOU to drive?

Never too old to return to classroom

Seniors can learn tips to improve their driving skills

Older motorists are encouraged to take a refresher driving course or crash-prevention class. Older motorists are encouraged to take a refresher driving course or crash-prevention class. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File)
By Peter DeMarco
September 3, 2009

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A few weeks ago I found myself in a classroom with 25 eager senior citizens enrolled in AAA’s Driver Improvement Program for Mature Operators. Amidst coffee and doughnuts, we soaked up scores of useful driving tips, everything from zapping blind spots to spotting parked cars about to dart into traffic.

AARP offers the same type of focused instruction through both an online course and classes offered at local libraries, senior centers, and councils on aging. Older drivers also can sign up for hourlong safe-driving workshops run by the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Retesting elderly drivers to get dangerous ones off the road has been this summer’s hottest driving topic. But there’s another other way to improve safety when it comes to older motorists: teaching them age-appropriate driving skills and defensive driving tips through driver’s ed-style refresher courses.

“The aging process is what it is,’’ said Dave Raposa, who’s instructed the AAA class for 20 years. “There may be a time when people have to make significant adjustments to their driving habits. We’re trying to have people learn in the classroom so that they’re driving safer, and longer.’’

Most senior-driving programs stress common-sense advice. It’s true that vision, hearing, and reaction times decline as we age, but seniors can nevertheless become better drivers by acknowledging their limitations, by overcompensating on safety measures, and by thinking ahead about accident prevention.

In Control Advanced Driver Training, a private driving school based in Wilmington, goes so far as to offer behind-the-wheel instruction on making panic stops and changing lanes. Seniors who enroll in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s DriveWise program, meanwhile, get both safe driving tips and a medical evaluation on how their health is affecting their driving.

Just how much elders can improve their driving depends on the individual, instructors say, and for many seniors, there still will come a day when driving is no longer an option. But refresher courses are plentiful, and many cost less than $20, which seems like a small investment for information that could make a grandparent feel safer and more confident.

Here’s our seniors tip sheet, culled from various programs, and presented in two parts. For more information, go online at mass.gov/rmv/seniors/links.htm or contact one of the sources mentioned.

Knowing limits
Lots of seniors already curb their night-time driving because of decreased visibility. But most need to change the way they drive during the day as well.

For many seniors, that starts with avoiding left turns whenever possible.

“Taking a left-hand turn at a big intersection isn’t the best thing to do. People aren’t courteous,’’ said Alicia Tantillo, who runs Champion Driving School in Brockton with her husband, Paul.

Left turns are fine when there’s a dedicated turning lane and a green arrow, Tantillo said. But without such assisting measures, senior drivers sometimes don’t have the reflexes to dart in front of oncoming traffic. Federal crash statistics show a large spike when it comes to older drivers who turn left.

“What’s the saying: If you take three rights, it’s equal to one left? If you can go the round-about way and avoid left turns, that’s a huge tip,’’ Tantillo said.

Peripheral vision generally declines as we age, so it’s not enough for senior drivers to rely on what they see in car mirrors before changing lanes. “They actually have to turn their body around to look over their shoulder,’’ said Kara Cohen, community service director for AARP Massachusetts.

Similar advice applies at intersections: Seniors should turn their bodies slightly left or right to make sure they see pedestrians on the fringe of the road. For seniors who have trouble physically turning, AAA and other programs recommend simple flexibility exercises that can be practiced at home.

Lissa Kapust, longtime program coordinator for Beth Israel’s DriveWise program, said that elderly drivers don’t necessarily realize how medications affect their driving.

“A senior will tell me she’s taking Tylenol PM for sleep, but they don’t consider that a medication because it’s over-the-counter,’’ Kapust said. “It contains Benadryl, which makes people feel drunk during the day. Attention is going to be severely impaired while drunk on medicine, while tired, or while preoccupied with emotional difficulties.’’

In general, seniors can’t handle as much stimulus as younger drivers, so the effect of any driving distraction, be it a loud radio, talkative passengers, or fear of forgetting something at the grocery store, is magnified, said Michele Ellicks, community outreach coordinator for the Registry.

They also need to curtail driving when sleepy or ill.

Younger drivers can sometimes get away with sloppy driving. Not so much with older ones, Kapust said.

“When we test older drivers, we look at how people change lanes, how well they do at stop signs. The rolling stop at a stop sign - that’s not OK,’’ she said. “A lot of times it’s just a matter of bringing it to people’s attention.’’

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. He also updates a Facebook page, “WhotaughtYOUtodrive?’’