‘Older driver’ tips useful at any age

This is the dashboard of a Chevy Volt. There’s a lot more to displays than there used to be. The information can be very helpful, or distracting, depending on the driver’s skills. (Dusten Fenstermacher/The Washington Post)

For an article on older driver safety in this week’s Local Living section, I sat in on an AARP Smart Driver course, taught by Rose Hobson at the senior center in Camp Springs.

I was there to soak up the atmosphere and watch Hobson’s engaging ways of transmitting safety lessons to the seniors in the classroom. But after a few minutes, I got the uncomfortable feeling that I wasn’t just taking notes for a story. I was learning about driving.

While the course is aimed at older drivers — many of whom attend because they want the discount that insurance companies offer graduates — a good part of the instruction simply reminds us what we were supposed to know in the first place.

A decade or three after driver’s education, many of us retain the muscle memories, like the moves in parallel parking, but other things, like the rules of road, may be getting a bit hazy. (As in, What does a solid white line mean? What do two solid white lines mean?)

Then there’s the fear factor that driver’s education instilled. There’s a difference between being comfortable driving and being complacent about driving. A little fear about the consequences of bad driving is good. As Tom Vanderbilt points out in “Traffic,” the fact that we got home safely yesterday reinforces our self esteem, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re good drivers. We may just have been lucky.

Also, vehicle designs and road designs have evolved since many of us learned to drive, even if that was a mere decade ago. On the roads, we see more signs about pedestrians in crosswalks and about bicyclists being able to use the entire lane. New cars feature gauges and aids that weren’t available on vehicles a few years older. My old car had a “check engine” light and a temperature gauge. My new one has 15 indicator and warning lights, requiring different levels of response depending on the problem. Not all distractions involve talking and texting.

These are 10 tips drawn from Hobson’s Smart Driver class that may be useful to drivers of any age.

Tire tread check. Insert a quarter into the tire’s tread. If no portion of Washington’s head is covered, the tread is below 1/8 inch. Consider replacing the tire.

Safety restraints. Seat belts and air bags are meant to work together. No matter how many air bags your car can deploy, you still need to buckle up.

Hands on steering wheel. You may be less likely to suffer injury from the steering wheel air bag’s inflation if you keep your hands in an eight o’clock/four o’clock position on the wheel, rather than in the higher-up 10 o’clock/two o’clock position you originally learned.

Anti-lock brakes. Press down firmly and stay on the brake. Don’t pump. That defeats the purpose. A rapid pulsing or vibration from the pedal is normal when applying ABS brakes.

Solid white lines. Crossing a single solid white line is discouraged. Crossing a double white line is prohibited.

Center turn lane. A central, two-way left turn lane marked by left-pointing arrows is for turning only. It isn’t a passing lane.

Intersections. They’re dangerous places for everyone. For a driver, a four-way, two lane intersection offers 32 potential points of conflict with other drivers, and 24 potential points of conflict with pedestrians. A left turn is among the most dangerous maneuvers a driver performs — for the driver, other motorists, pedestrians and cyclists. Don’t look for just one thing. Scan for potential hazards.

Stopping distances. At 60 mph on a dry road, with a one-second reaction time, it takes 268 feet to brake and stop. It’s a long way. If your NFL team returned a kickoff for a touchdown at that distance, you’d be on your feet screaming.

Medications. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if the medications you’re taking could impair your driving. Ask in particular about the effects of combining medications.

Cellphones. Going hands-free doesn’t solve the problem of distracted driving. Researchers find that motorists still wind up concentrating on the conversation at the expense of their driving responsibilities.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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