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Learning more than initially thought in senior driving class

By: Pauline Nevins
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I was 27 years old before I learned to drive in my husband’s beloved 1966 Chevrolet Super Sport. “If you learn on a four-speed,” he’d said. “You’ll be able to drive anything.”

He was right. And it was a blessing that I had not learned to drive in my native England or I would have contended with the right/left side of the road challenge. I didn’t miss having a car. Unlike my American-born husband and his teenage friends, owning a car was not something I craved. The green double-decker bus stopped around the corner from my house, and it took me anywhere I needed to go.

Nobody in my family knew how to drive back then. Very few in the neighborhood even owned a car. Mr. Potts, a neighbor famous for his greenhouse vegetables, was one of the lucky ones. He putted around in an antique Ford. He was so short that I experienced the amazement of seeing a driver-less car long before it became a reality.

I bring up this ancient history because a week ago I was sitting in a plastic folding chair at a plastic-top table at the Auburn Senior Center listening to AARP Smart Driver Course instructor, James Chambers. I was there, not so much to improve my driving skills, but to save money. Completing the course’s two four-hour sessions, on two consecutive days, ensures that I'll receive a rebate on my AAA car insurance for the next three years. Not too shabby I thought, and was willing to take the required refresher course to continue the rebate.

Our instructor, James, was knowledgeable and energetic and looked 10 years younger than his admitted 76 years. He’s a district coordinator, which means he’s experienced enough to teach other driver safety instructors in his district. “We’re all volunteers,” he told me.

The time flew. James kept the class awake with personal anecdotes, many of them very funny. He gave some serious advice too. Did you know the steering wheel that contains the airbag should be at least 10 inches from your sternum? Did you know you could adjust your seatbelt at the column so it’s in the correct position? And how about the correct position for those side mirrors to minimize blind spots? I was checking this stuff out in the scorching parking lot after the first session.

James also reminded us to fill up when our gas tank needle shows half-full. "We live in a state that has wildfires, floods, and earthquakes. Do you want to get stuck in a long gas line trying to get to safety? And that’s assuming the station attendant has stuck around, and the power is still on.”

My eyes were opened to some shocking statistics. Did you know 30 to 40 percent of fatal crashes involving mature drivers occur at intersections? Left turns, especially where there is no traffic signal, can be particularly hazardous.

Merging into traffic is another high-risk maneuver for mature drivers. One of the class participants shared a recent experience.

“Susan” went to DMV to renew her license. She failed her eye test. She returned with a doctor’s note explaining she was fit to drive as long as she wore her glasses. Not good enough. DMV scheduled a road test. Susan was driving a car she’d owned for just two weeks, and was unaware that one of the brake lights was out. A tip from James: “You never know when you may be required to take a road test. Make sure your car is in good mechanical condition.”

Susan returned to take the road test. The DMV instructor opted to test her skills at the on-ramp on Elm Avenue going east onto Interstate 80. I’ve taken that on-ramp many times. My knees knock every time. A driver not only has to contend with a short ramp, but the merging lane is also the exit lane for traffic barreling down the freeway. Massive trucks heading for Reno blow by.

Susan admitted to being a cautious driver. Apparently too cautious for DMV. She failed her test — didn’t merge correctly. I admit to merging too slowly on that on-ramp. More than one driver offered me a one-figure salute as they sped around me.

“I’ve totally lost confidence,” Susan whispered to me during one of the course breaks. “I never use that on-ramp. I always take the one off Bell Road.” She has another road test scheduled. I wished her luck.

If you are not yet a mature driver (65-plus), one day you will be. I learned that it’s time for me to adapt my driving to the inevitable physical and mental changes that are occurring as I age, and by doing so will help keep me and others stay safe. The AARP Smart Driver course is a place to begin. I hope James Chambers is your instructor.

Pauline Nevins is the author of “Bonkers for Conkers,” a compilation of personal essays, and the memoir, “‘Fudge’ The Downs and Ups of a Biracial, Half-Irish British War Baby.” Nevins is a member of Auburn’s Gold Country Writers. Her email address is pond@usamedia.tv.