Drivers update road skills Seniors: AARP program in Edgewater 'freshens your perceptions' at the wheel.

December 21, 1997|By Melinda Rice | Melinda Rice,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

They giggled and whispered as the teacher talked about traffic rules and regulations, interrupting his instructions on safe following distance and what to do in case of equipment failure with personal anecdotes.

Instructor Howard Klug Sr. tried calling them to order, but the whispering and tittering swelled again in minutes.

Adolescent behavior aside, this is no typical driver's education class. The students in this course slid behind a steering wheel for the first time before shortages of rubber and gasoline limited the number of cars on the road during World War II.

One student, Howard Bonn of Heritage Harbour, recalls his first car was a used 1934 Chevrolet coupe that he bought for $300.

Now Bonn, 86, and his wife, Ruth, 81, drive new Chevrolet Cavaliers, and both recently took the AARP's eight-hour 55 Alive course at the South County Senior Center in Edgewater.

"It just freshens your perceptions. It's well worthwhile," Howard Bonn said Friday.

Since the American Association of Retired Persons began offering the course in 1979, it has been completed more than 5 million times nationally, sometimes two or three times by the same person, according to AARP records. Klug, a volunteer who has taught the courses for a decade, said the size of his classes has quadrupled.

Many students repeat the class every three years to take advantage of a discount from their insurance companies.

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia require insurers to provide discounted automobile insurance to senior citizens who take the class. Maryland is not among those states, but several insurance companies offer the discount anyway.

The Bonns have taken the class several times each, as has Paul Edwards, 77, of Mayo. Last week's class made a total of three for him, and two for his wife, May, 75.

Edwards wouldn't reveal how much he saves. But, "it's enough to make it worth it," he said.

Despite a public perception to the contrary, senior citizens tend to be safer than many younger drivers. According to statistics from AARP, senior citizens make up 25 percent of the population nationwide, but are involved in only 18 percent of the traffic accidents.

In Maryland, a little more than 1 million drivers are 50 and older. Neither the state nor the county keeps a record of the number of accidents in which age is a factor.

Some participants in the AARP class, such as Janet Lebow, 75, of Annapolis, recently moved from another state and want to acquaint themselves with Maryland laws.

The course does not require participants to take a test to get a certificate. Its purpose is to remind senior citizens of skills they may have forgotten, and to alert them to the effects aging can have on their driving.

"You go in there with the attitude, 'I know it all. I've been driving for 50 years,' " said Basil Creath, 64, of Oakwood, who took the AARP class for the first time last week. "Then you find out your reflexes really aren't as good."

Creath, who took the class with his wife, Martha, also 64, said he found out he probably has been following other cars a little too closely.

Klug, who is 79, said most students are like Creath and only need a refresher. Occasionally, though, Klug will chat with a student he thinks should not be on the road to try to persuade him of that.

"Just because you're 50 or 60 or 70, whatever," he said, "it's no indication that you're a good driver or a bad driver."

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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