- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2001

Arthur Lamb remembers driving his post-World War II Frazer Nash as a young man. The Fair Oaks, Va., resident is still wheeling around town today at 76, and he's not about to give up his license or the keys to his new BMW anytime soon.

What Mr. Lamb did do was attend the AAA Mid-Atlantic Advanced Driving Seminar to learn some defensive driving techniques to sharpen his skills. The class setup piqued his interest, he says.

"The classes involve hands-on driving, and I thought I'd take advantage of it and refresh my knowledge, upgrade my skills and find out what the current driving techniques are," Mr. Lamb says.

He's not alone.

Today, more middle-aged and senior citizens are going back into the classroom for theory and behind-the-wheel instruction with professional driving instructors. National organizations like AAA Mid-Atlantic and AARP, which also offers the 55 Alive Driver Safety Program, helps older motorist and younger ones, too, become better, safer drivers.

Since AARP started its national driver safety program in 1979, the attendance has jumped from 6,000 students to 600,000 students annually, says Brian Greenberg, the national program consultant for 55 Alive.

In the metropolitan area, Mr. Greenberg says about 5,000 persons age 50 and older enroll for the eight-hour classes, which are taught in two four-hour sessions in the District, Maryland and Virginia. There's usually a class starting every week, and there's no membership requirement other than being 50 years old or older, says Mr. Greenberg, who is 43. Although, these classes don't include hands-on, behind-the-wheel instruction, the information imparted in the $10 class is invaluable, he says.

Thirty-six states and the District even have incentives for drivers who complete the class. Graduates become eligible for lower insurance premiums, Mr. Greenberg says.

Seniors often get a bad rap for driving as slow as molasses or causing accidents on the road. Mr. Lamb doesn't discount all the claims. "I suppose there are some elderly people on the road who shouldn't be there for their own safety and the safety of others. But 20-year-olds can be pretty dangerous, too. And, they think they're indestructible, and they can do everything," he says.

Ronald Keaton, a traffic safety representative for AAA Mid-Atlantic in Chantilly, Va., says he's noticed momentum for driver re-education building in this area. Older drivers want to refresh their skills and re-educate themselves. So much has changed over the years, especially car design, he says. Long gone are roll-down windows, three-speed manual transmissions, wing visors and tweed seat covers.

"Some motorists have front-wheel-drive vehicles, and they differ from the old rear-wheel drive in terms of how they handle. Air bags change the way a person steers and where they place their hands on the steering wheel," says Mr. Keaton, 53.

"Tires have changed. Now they have four ratings. The air pressures are totally different. If the tires aren't inflated properly, it changes the way the car operates, as we've seen in the Firestone-Ford situation," he says.

Mr. Lamb says he feels comfortable with the new design of cars and their plethora of fancy features, but since enrolling in the Advanced Driving Seminar classes, he's learned a thing or two about how to brake during an emergency.

For example, he says, students in a company vehicle approach a stoplight at three different speeds and from multiple directions. (Instructors are inside the vehicles with the students for this exercise.) Then, he says, the teacher turns on a red light. The challenge is to stop the vehicle without losing control, Mr. Lamb says. Precaution and practice go hand-in-hand.

"There's a serpentine course that you steer through. It's also what is called a complex cone course where a set of cones is placed on each side; it's very tight and very narrow. You have to get through them without knocking over any of the cones," Mr. Lamb says. "It's a matter of how aware you are of where the corners of the car are at any given time and when to start to make your turn."

AAA Mid-Atlantic's new Advanced Driving Seminar classes take place at the Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, Va. Initially, Mr. Keaton says, the classes were directed toward younger, less experienced drivers, but the class seems to have taken on a life of its own and appeals to older motorists, like Mr. Lamb.

Students receive a total of four hours of theory and 12 hours of driving time, Mr. Keaton says. Classes are held on two consecutive weekends, either Saturday or Sunday at 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. This gives students the opportunity to practice driving at night with various simulated driving situations, he says.

Here's the drill: Students learn how to read and check the air pressure in their tires. Then, they check all of the fluids underneath the hood, like the oil, transmission fluid and antifreeze, Mr. Keaton says.

"Then we go into the classroom and we have a vehicle dynamics class. That's where we explain why a car does what it does. And, we explain how one arrives at what the limitations are for the car," he says. "Once the limitations are explained, we talk about the 'Driver's Triad, ' which includes the machine or the vehicle, the environment — the weather and roadway conditions — and, the most important part, the driver."

Mr. Keaton says instructors discuss the proper way to sit in a car and how to adjust the seat. Then, teachers talks about proper brake and accelerator control. This topic entails how to make smooth transitions with the foot from the gas pedal to the brake.

Students learn steering-wheel management — the 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and the 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. hand positions on a steering wheel, he says. Instructors also discuss shuffle steering, a type of steering used in emergency situations, and air bags.

Plus, there's lots of expert guidance on the driving course at Old Dominion Speedway after the classroom theory is finished, Mr. Keaton says. Then it's time to get behind the wheel and buckle up.

AARP's 55 Alive program takes into account the changes that occur in a person's vision, hearing and reaction time as they get older, Mr. Greenberg says. Volunteer instructors who are trained by AARP personnel present ways in which aging motorists can adapt. Instructors use a teaching manual and each student gets a workbook that serves as a handy reference, he says.

The two-part class reviews basic defensive driving techniques, discusses current driving challenges on today's roads regarding aggressive drivers, the use of cell phones, dealing with trucks and blind spots, Mr. Greenberg says. Left turns are a major concern for motorists.

"Left turns and the right-of-way situations are commonly a problem for older drivers, " he says.

Let's play this left-turn scenario out — the older driver tries to judge the speed of an oncoming vehicle from the opposite direction sometimes that's harder for an older eye, Mr. Greenberg says.

Or, let's say for instance, an older driver is merging onto a ramp of a highway. The driver has to judge the speed of the traffic in the lane he or she is trying to merge onto. That, too, can present a problem in terms of judging the gap, he says.

Classes cover the proper use of anti-lock brakes, air bags and, of course, seat belts, Mr. Greenberg says.

"We also discuss the topic of driving retirement. At what point do drivers have to consider other transportation options when driving may not be the safest alternative, " he says.

Instructors approach the sensitive subject of driving retirement by asking students if they know someone who feels uncomfortable or frightened behind the wheel. Someone, the teacher suggests, who tires easily after driving, has an increasing number of scratches and dents on their car or gets honked at frequently.

After that, students complete a personal driving capability index with multiple-choice answers.

For example, Mr. Greenberg says, one question may read: I get nervous making left turns. The answers: always, frequently or never.

"If they have answered yes to a lot of the questions, we ask them to take appropriate action, possibly talking with their doctor or begin taking a behind-the-wheel refresher course," he says.

Mr. Greenberg, an 18-year-old veteran of AARP in Northwest, has received rave reviews from students. Initially, he says, the possibility of a lower insurance premiums was the great motivator to enroll in 55 Alive.

"I can't tell you how many teachers say their students told them they enrolled because they wanted to get an insurance discount," he says.

But, students also tell teachers they've learned so much in class that can possibly prevent them from having an automobile crash the class has been very valuable, Mr. Greenberg says about the enthusiastic responses for students.

"People really enjoy the classes because they are interactive. It is not just a person talking at you. People have a chance to share their experience from a lifetime of driving," he says.

For more information about class schedules and costs for AAA Mid-Atlantic Advanced Driving Seminars, call Ronald Keaton at 703/222-4126. For more information about AARP's 55 Alive Driver Safety Program, call 888/227-7669.

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