Staying in the driver's seat: Classes help seniors

Posted: Tuesday, August 02, 2005

JUNEAU — Gen Dickey said she dreads the day she will have to give up her driver's license.

Dickey, 75, and her 83-year-old husband, Don, take turns driving to make doctors' appointments, shop for groceries or meet their friends.

''Driving means independence,'' Dickey said.

As the population above 55 grows nearly twice as fast as the total population, more seniors are on the road. According to the National Traffic Safety Administration, more than 22 million licensed drivers are 65 years or older.

Despite their decades of experience, people older than 55 have to adjust their driving to age-related physical changes such as slowing reflexes, dimming eyesight and fading hearing.

One of the ways to refresh their driving skills is to take an eight-hour driver safety class by AARP.

The class helps older people recognize weaknesses and find ways to compensate for those physical changes.

Seniors who take the class can get a reduction in their insurance payment.

AARP offers eight classes a year in Juneau.

''The class reminds people of things they have learned a long time ago,'' said Norma Jean McCorcle, assistant state coordination of AARP Alaska.

The Dickeys took the class with other seniors Tuesday and Thursday.

Students used workbooks with letters at least three times as big as those in an ordinary driver's manual. They tested themselves on their reaction time. They practiced turning their heads and rotating their bodies.

''You certainly need the exercise,'' said Ruth Pedersen, 72. ''The older you get, the more stiff you are.''

The students also identified driving distractions.

Don Dickey listed his wife as the biggest distraction.

''I don't know why she talks so much,'' he said.

Gen Dickey replied, ''I help him notice things. I try to be quiet but it doesn't always work.''

Although the class targets people older than 50, it is not limited to seniors. Anyone can take the class to take two points off their driving record.

Jason Haffner, 33, took the class in July with the Dickeys because he has had a few speeding tickets. He didn't expect that some of his classmates would be 50 years older than he is.

''I should have guessed because the class was at the senior center,'' Haffner said. ''It is kind of odd to take the class with older people, but it makes me realize that there are older people out there driving. They may not judge a situation as fast as I do. I should not speed. They might need more time to respond.''

Rie Muoz, 83, said she stopped driving at night about three years ago because of her poor night vision. She also stopped driving in the Lower 48 because she doesn't like the traffic and is not as familiar with the roads as she is with Juneau's. But she won't give up driving any time soon.

''At one point of my life, I decided that when I got to be 80, I was just going to give up driving because older people's reaction is not as fast as young people,'' Muoz said. ''I haven't done that yet.''

Tips for older drivers

How to compensate for changes brought about by aging:

n Limit driving to familiar areas.

n Have regular medical and vision checkups.

n Take medication in prescribed amounts.

n Avoid prolonged hours of driving.

n Don't drive in stressful traffic situations.

Warning signs to retire from driving:

n Feel more nervous while driving.

n Have trouble judging gaps in traffic.

n Get lost more often.

n Have difficulty staying in the lane of travel.

n Respond slowly to unexpected situations.

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