Classes help Pa. senior drivers adapt to changes in cars-- and in themselves

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Now that he has gotten a little older, Bill Febinger, 87, worries that his foot may have gotten a little heavy.

“Cars have changed,” he said just before the start of a safety class for older drivers. “They go too fast with just a little push on the gas feed.”

Mr. Febinger, who lives in Rayburn, Armstrong County, was one of about three dozen men and women who recently attended a seminar sponsored by Seniors for Safe Driving at an auto dealership in Butler County.

“I want the insurance discount,” Floyd Taylor, 87, said in explaining why he was in the driving class. Older drivers who take refresher sessions like the one offered by Seniors for Safe Driving qualify in Pennsylvania for a minimum 5 percent discount on their auto insurance. The break in rates continues for three years after they complete the course.

On an $800 annual insurance bill, that translates into a $40 savings each year. That’s a pretty good return on the $15 to $20 cost for taking a refresher course through groups such as Seniors for Safe Driving, AARP and AAA.

Experience counts

“You can take a nap,” course instructor Vince Sommariva joked with his students before the session began at Kelly Chevrolet in Butler Township. “But don’t snore,” he added.

Mr. Sommariva, who lives in Mars, tried to make sure his students didn’t have any reason to nod off. He used short videos, model cars, drawings and full-sized visual aids, including a deployed air bag, to keep his audience interested.

He also sought to make the course interactive, encouraging his listeners to ask questions and make comments. “We’re all going to learn from each other’s experiences,” he promised.

Regulating motor vehicle operators is a state function. Driver’s licenses in Pennsylvania and Ohio must be renewed every four years. West Virginians must get new licenses every five. None of the three states places any special requirements on older drivers seeking renewals of their licenses.

Those policies are in contrast with California. Drivers in that state, age 70 and older, must take a written test and eye exam when they renew their licenses every five years. Maryland licenses last eight years, but all drivers age 40 and older must take an eye exam at renewal time.

Seniors for Safe Driving has been offering classes to Pennsylvania’s growing population of older drivers since 1996. Desiree Simpson, manager of the instructional company’s Butler office, estimated that the number of older drivers taking seniors courses has been rising between 3 and 4 percent each year.

Why the need for instruction? Both cars and the older drivers themselves have changed over the decades, experts say.

New cars, new ways to drive

“Most seniors haven’t had any driving refreshment since they took their driving test 50 years ago,” Ms. Simpson said. “The cars they are driving now are not the cars they learned on.”

As a result, topics discussed in the refresher class include how to stop a vehicle equipped with anti-lock brakes and how to avoid unintended injury when air bags deploy.

Big trucks can intimidate many drivers, and the refresher course also includes a section on how to share the road with 18-wheel tractor-trailers on busy interstate highways. “They learn tips and tricks they need to feel secure again as they drive,” Ms. Simpson said.

Terri Rae Anthony, a safety adviser with the AAA East Central office, said the automobile club offers a mature driver course both online and in person. “People taking the course learn about what is going on in traffic safety laws and programs around the nation and locally,” she said. “We also discuss how vehicles have changed.”

“We teach drivers how to adjust for slower reflexes and weaker vision,” she said. “You learn how to modify your driving to go along with that.”

Sometimes all that is needed to improve driving skills are simple physical changes to the vehicle. The American Occupational Therapy Association, AARP and AAA developed “CarFit,” a 12-point checklist to make sure older drivers are positioned properly for the kind of vehicle they are driving. “We check to make sure that the driver can see over the steering wheel and is sitting far enough away from the air bag — 10 inches to 12 inches — to allow it to deploy.” Being too close to the airbag when it inflates in an accident can cause burns or chest trauma.

Problems with a driver’s “fit” often can be solved by mechanical changes: adjusting the seat position, adding cushions to raise the driver or installing pedal extenders.

“Senior drivers are wise drivers,” Ms. Anthony said. “They are less likely to speed, less likely to drink and drive, and more likely to buckle up. But they are more fragile.”

Those two factors are reflected in federal and state statistics on automobile accidents.

Americans age 65 and older were 14 percent of the population but represented 17 percent of those killed in traffic accidents, according to 2012 statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission.

More seniors on the road

The ranks of older drivers are growing dramatically. From 2003 to 2012, the population of older drivers —- those age 65 and older — jumped 20 percent across the nation, with the numbers in Pennsylvania higher. Between 2004 and 2013, the total number of drivers in the state holding non-commercial driver’s licenses rose 5 percent from 8.03 million to 8.46 million. By contrast, the number of licensed drivers age 65 and older rose 27 percent from 1.43 million to 1.82 million during that same period.

One key to avoiding accidents — and the risk of serious or fatal injuries — is to maintain a margin of safety around the vehicle, and Mr. Sommariva emphasized that fact in his class. The standard taught 40 years ago in many driver-education classes called for keeping one-car length behind the vehicle in front of you for every 10 mph of speed. That guideline has been replaced with a time interval.

Twenty-car pileups result from motorists “driving in clusters” with an inadequate “space cushion” around their vehicles, Mr. Sommariva told his senior class. He gave them one formula to remember. “Space and visibility equal time to react,” he said: S + V = T.

He offered a practical tip for maintaining that “space cushion” under differing conditions. Watch the vehicle in front of you pass by a landmark, such as a bridge overpass, he said. Then count — 1,000, 1,001, 1,002, 1,003 — to time a three-second period before your vehicle passes that same spot. “Double that time in the wintertime when roads are icy,” he advised.

Dennis Burke, 66, of Clearfield, was a first-timer taking the senior class. He said he liked the practical advice students were getting, especially for highway driving. He had a 41-year career in the Army National Guard, some of it spent teaching truck-driver training and winter driving for military convoy operators.

“I knew most of this stuff, especially about the dangers in following too closely,” Gary Gilliland, 66, of Chicora, said. “But I can use the refresher. You can learn things better the second time around.”

Len Barcousky: or 724-772-0184.

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