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Driven to stay safe on the road

The Baltimore Sun

In 1953, K. Dale Williams Sr. bought a new Plymouth for $1,975. That was a wince-worthy sum back then, but Williams remembers cringing even more when he was offered - for $13 more - a handy-dandy little gadget called a turn signal.

"It was an option back then, turn signals," Williams, 77, said. "And back-up lights."

Over the years, Williams has learned that turn signals are far from optional; they're vital. As are such good driving practices as checking mirrors and blind spots before moving an inch, merging smoothly and safely, and adhering to the three-second rule when following another car.

As district coordinator of AARP's Safe Driving Program for motorists 50 and older, Williams has been teaching lessons like those to drivers in his peer group since 2001. And though older drivers face challenges such as poorer reaction times and visual impairment, he and experts say that contrary to popular stereotypes, older people are careful drivers.

"As a driving group, older drivers are one of the safest groups that we have on the highway," said Eric Bolton, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "If anything, older drivers serve as a model for how to drive safely."

That might be surprising to some. When an 86-year-old man plowed into a California farmers' market in 2003, killing 10, it renewed a debate over whether elderly people should keep their licenses.

But Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said senior drivers kill fewer motorists and pedestrians than any other age group, have the lowest crash-involvement rates among licensed drivers and the lowest rates involving alcohol impairment.

"And they have the highest rates of seat belt use," Averella said.

That's good news, since the United States population is getting increasingly older.

"Twenty-five years from now, one in four drivers will be 65 or older, with the aging of the baby boomers," said Tiffany Lundquist, a spokeswoman for AARP in Maryland.

To keep older drivers cruising safely, AARP regularly offers refresher courses at senior and community centers, giving older drivers a chance to bone up on rules and regulations they might have forgotten, introduce them to new traffic technology and review driving issues that are senior-specific.

At a two-day course this month at the O'Malley Senior Center Annex in Odenton, 11 older motorists flipped through a workbook, watched videos and asked questions of Williams, who says he has driven some 2 million miles over his lifetime.

"I always learn something here," said Ed Merz, 69, of Gambrills. "I think that a lot of the older people should be encouraged to take these."

Merz and others also sign up because some insurance companies - such as Geico - offer insurance discounts to drivers who take such classes.

"That's a real advantage," Merz said.

Although older drivers as a whole are safer drivers, NHTSA reports that older people are less likely to survive a crash than younger people "because of the age-related condition of the senior driver or senior occupant," Bolton said.

The NHTSA report, "Turning the Corner and Still Driving," says crash-related fatalities involving older drivers are projected to increase by 155 percent as the population ages.

That's why Williams stresses that older drivers be vigilant. Those whipper-snappers whizzing by as they chat on their cell phones, changing lanes at breakneck speeds, aren't the ones who will end up in the morgue if there's a crash, he warns. It's he and his students.

Seniors also need to keep a keen eye out for new traffic patterns, he said.

"I've felt like the roads are changing all around here," said Sara Johnson, 73, of Odenton. "There's new construction, and you have these roundabout things. I just want to make sure I'm as good as I ought to be when I'm out here on the roads."

"Oh! Those roundabouts!" Barbara Dayney, 80, a four-time class participant, said, shaking her head. "I've almost gotten hit twice on those things!"

AARP gives out a certificate of completion to course-takers that's only valid for three years, Williams said. That's because changes on the roadways and in automotive technology, as well as other factors, mean that drivers can never be done learning. Lane-use signals, for example, which control traffic flow with green arrows and red Xs, are relatively new and can cause confusion, he said. Class member Cecilia Lu struggled to understand lane markings that feature alternating broken dashes and solid dashes. Can I pass on this side or on that one? she wondered. What about the oncoming vehicles?

"When we get a license, we are young," Lu said, flipping through the 120-page workbook that is required reading in the class. "Now that we're 70, it's different. Sometimes they change the rules."

Over the course's eight hours, Williams and other instructors urge drivers to do what most are doing: refrain from using a cell phone, use seat belts, drive for no more than eight hours at a time, don't drive if taking certain medications, never drink and drive and know your limitations.

Maryland has no age limit on driving, said Buel Young, a spokesman for the Motor Vehicle Administration, although motorists 40 and older must have their vision certified at every five-year renewal period.

"What we're looking for is to allow people to have their mobility as long as possible so long as it's safe," Young said.

At the driving class, students said they've all heard the stereotypical comments about older drivers. Some of them they agree with.

"I have a brother-in-law in Michigan. He was totally deaf and he could only see directly in front of him," Dayney said. "And he still had his license."

Instructors also teach seniors practical exercises to keep their necks from stiffening on long drives and their feet from falling asleep on the pedals. Students practiced turning their heads from side-to-side, as if checking for blind spots, raising arms up and down, and toe-heel exercises.

Williams even gives students a tip he developed, for those times when thirst overtakes a driver who is intent on keeping his eye on the road.

"I've made myself a real long straw," he said.

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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