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Even good drivers need a refresher course

Senior drivers defensive driving courseOlder drivers are the safest drivers, hands down.

But many have been driving so long they've forgotten some of the rules, or haven't changed their driving habits to account for reflexes dulled by age.

Safety experts and state regulators feel so strongly about the benefits of classroom refresher courses -- even for those who've never had an accident or racked up a single ticket -- that a majority of states require insurance companies to offer discounts. Even in states where a discount isn't the law, most companies offer a break for defensive driving courses anyway.

The AARP Smart Driver Course, launched in 1979 as "55 Alive," is the largest and most well-known defensive driving course for those of a certain card-carrying age. Last year, more than 560,000 people took it, either online or in a class held at a senior center, car dealership, library or other community space.

Most get car insurance discounts in exchange, helpful because car insurance rates start to rise once driver reach 70 or so.

The class is four to eight hours long, depending on the state, and includes no tests, either on the road or at a desk. What it does include is a good deal of discussion about aging's effect on seeing, hearing and reacting, and tools to compensate. It reviews road rules most of us haven't visited since high school.

And it appears to work. An independent study by the Eastern Virginia Medical School showed course participants made fewer hazardous errors than non-participants and were better able to regulate their driving behavior, scheduling around night-time driving, for example, or altering routes to avoid high-speed traffic or tricky intersections.

"A lot of people do hang up their keys early because they've lost their confidence behind the wheel. Our course allows them to get that confidence back up," says Julie Lee, vice president and national director of AARP Driver Safety. "This is about keeping people on the road. We want people to be mobile as long as possible, and we want them to be safe."

One specific: After learning about the high rate of left-turn injury accidents among older drivers, course participants proceeded with greater caution through left turns.

You think you remember, but do you?

Most who take the AARP driving course are in their early or mid-70s, although the course is open to drivers of any age. Some attend with their teenage grandchildren, and it's unclear who is dragging whom.

"When we start, I'll ask, 'What's the difference between a yellow line and a white line?' " says Harold Sterling, an instructor in Illinois. "And everyone says, 'You can't pass on a yellow line.' "

"No, think about it," he tells them.

Once, in a neighborhood watch meeting, he saw the local police chief lean over and ask his traffic commander, "What's the answer?"

"I almost broke out laughing," Sterling says.

"I say, 'See, everyone thought they knew the right answer, and no one did. It's other things just like that.' "

Sterling formerly served with the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Now 72, he has taught some 120 courses since retirement, all as a volunteer. He tells students they are relearning how to drive safely.

"Quite often, they'll ask me right back: 'How do I know what I've forgotten?' It's a good question," he says. "Then as we go through class, you'll see the light bulb go on."

The AARP revamped its course this year after consulting with gerontologists, driving experts, even scientists at the MIT Age Lab. Where did older drivers need the most help? Some of the results were surprising: a review of the basics should be included.

A person turning 65 today is one of 10,000 baby boomers to do so. When they were born, the U.S. Interstate system didn't exist. They took driver's ed some 50 years ago. Drivers have since become more distracted, freeways more crowded.

After taking a defensive driver course, 97 percent report to AARP that they changed at least one driving behavior.

It's OK to talk about age and driving

The challenge is convincing drivers who don't need to shave traffic points to show up. Older drivers are willing to talk about the challenges of aging, says Sterling. But many fear that their license will be pulled if it's revealed they've forgotten some driving information. The fear, hardly surprising in the age of data mining, is unwarranted.

"Our whole purpose is for people to retain their mobility," Sterling says. "You can tell there's a change in attitude from the beginning of class to the end as they become more comfortable discussing their driving experience and the changes on the road today."

Thirty-five states require that auto insurance companies give defensive-driver graduates a discount, which can be as high as 10 percent. In remaining states, many insurers will still offer a discount.

The AARP says its studies reveal an average savings of $60 annually. A discount lasts three years, at which point drivers can repeat the course (cost hovers around $20) to maintain the discount.

(Answer to above question: A yellow line divides traffic moving in opposite directions; a white line divides traffic moving in the same direction. Broken lines in both colors indicate it is permissible to pass.)

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