August 03, 2020

Class refreshes older drivers’ skills

Is it just me, or is driving more frustrating than ever before? There seems to be a steady stream of traffic no matter which way I turn. Not to mention road construction. I’ve been known to “white-knuckle” my way home more than once.

Spotting the dreaded, diamond-shaped orange sign warning of road work ahead instantly can invoke anxiety. That’s especially true for seniors, said Sylvia Smith, 70, instructor for the AARP Driver Safety Program.

“We talk about how to handle construction in class,” said Smith. “In fact, the students usually bring it up themselves. They apologize for being late, saying they had to detour off their route. Construction can be very confusing for them.”

Aging is associated with changes in eyesight including the narrowing of peripheral vision, an inability to see in darkness and sensitivity to glare. Hearing loss and muscle stiffness, which can prevent sudden movement and lengthen response time, are other common complaints of getting older. Medication interaction may present problems also, sometimes causing adverse actions to occur, Smith said.

The AARP Driver Safety Program covers topics including ways to compensate for physical limitations of the driver, difficult traffic situations, what to do if confronted by an aggressive driver and potential trouble areas such as parking lots, backing up, skidding and blind spots.

“We also talk about how to assess one’s own and another’s driving in class,” said Smith. “If you are a timid driver, you may have more accidents. We try to help seniors with driver confidence.”

Smith emphasizes the importance of defensive driving, reminding seniors to always look both ways before proceeding through a green light.

“Intersections can be a problem,” she said. “If you go through a green light too soon, you could be broad-sided by someone running a red light. Always look first, and never trust that another driver will automatically stop for a red light. And remember to use your blinker when turning.”

Classes are limited to about 25 participants and there is a $10 fee, which covers the cost of materials including a user-friendly workbook. After completing the course, participants will receive a certificate which will entitle them to a discount on their insurance rates.

“Some people don’t take the class because they are afraid there is a road or written test,” said Smith. “But there is no test. We just want to get the information to them and brush up their skills.”

“One of the biggest mistakes that older drivers make is not yielding the right of way to other cars,” said Smith. Another is confusing the gas pedal for the brake.

One goal of the class is to make seniors aware of these situations and to curb driver inattention, she said, which is a major problem.

“Seniors concentrate so hard on their destination that they fail to look around while en route,” she added.

While the class is opened to anyone, it is specifically tailored to the mature driver, addressing changes that occur from the aging process.

Some seniors are concerned that mandatory driving tests for people of a certain age could become a reality. As baby boomers join the ranks of seniors, there will be more older drivers on the road, said Smith.

AARP, while offering the safe driving class, supports testing for drivers of any age who have demonstrated physical or mental impairment or deficiencies. The testing should not be limited to seniors, said Smith.

Eastern Agency on Aging will offer the driver safety class from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Oct. 2 and 3, in its Bangor offices. To reserve your space, call 941-2865.

“I’ve been teaching this class for six years, and I love it,” said Smith.

So do her students, judging by the laughter that fills Eastern Agency’s conference room when she is here.

Carol Higgins is director of communications at Eastern Agency on Aging. For more information on EAA, at 941-2865 or log on

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