How safety advocates work to keep older motorists safe

Rose Hobson says her class is “all about change,” but her students are there so they can keep on doing what they’ve been doing for four or five decades: driving.

First, though, they might feel old, frail, vulnerable and very challenged.

Hobson is going to get their attention by noting that a driver’s eyes and ears need to track 32 potential points of conflict — just in the few seconds it takes to get through a four-way intersection.


Rose Hobson discussing safety measures at a recent AARP Smart Driver class. (Robert Thomson)

Then she’s going to build them back up as better drivers, more aware of the modern roadway, the modern car and their older, wiser selves.

This is peer-to-peer learning. Hobson has been teaching AARP Smart Driver classes for several years since her retirement after a long career with the FBI.

As an instructor, she is on the front line of a nationwide campaign to keep aging baby boomers safe behind the wheel. These efforts continue among auto designers, researchers and consumer advocacy groups, as well as educators.

Read Hobson’s tips for drivers young and old

Even in the Washington region — home to one of the nation’s most extensive mass transit systems — most people drive and will continue to do so, either because they don’t see an alternative or because they like it.

Some empty-nesters will move from suburban homes to apartments or condos in central communities with easy access to transit, but others will choose to live farther out.

The older adults moving to communities such as Heritage Hunt in Gainesville might have friends, children, churches and doctors back in eastern Fairfax County, whom they will drive to visit. They like taking Metrorail to visit the Smithsonian museums in the District but they will drive to the Vienna station to catch a train.

Although people rely on their cars for both local and long-distance travel, their bodies and brains age, auto technologies change and the roadways create new challenges.

Hobson knows that the minds of older drivers might be willing to adapt, but their heads just don’t turn as far as they used to.

She stands up in front of the group at the senior center in Camp Springs. She sways, swivels her head and shakes her arms.

“Rev that body up!” Hobson tells her students. She wants people to do a two-minute warmup before getting into the driver’s seat.

Cyclists and walkers aren’t the only ones who use their bodies to get around. Motorists use their necks and torsos when checking the car’s blind spots or backing up. Muscle deterioration and loss of flexibility impair a driver’s ability to detect other vehicles and other people. And when a driver becomes fatigued, reaction time can slow down.

Safety instructors such as Hobson teach countermeasures: Recognize signs of fatigue, such as rubbing your eyes repeatedly, daydreaming or drifting from your lane; plan on stopping at least every two hours on a long trip; drive at off-peak hours and avoid busy highways.

But there’s only so much a body can do, and that’s where new car designs and technology can help.


The dashboard of a Chevy Volt. (Dustin Fenstermacher/For the Washington Post)

Safety courses such as those offered by AARP and AAA throughout the Washington region and online include consciousness-raising about new car enhancements, such as automatically adjusting headlights, backup monitoring cameras, built-in navigation systems, drowsy driver alerts and crash-avoidance systems.

Many older drivers embrace these safety aids, said Thomas Mutchler, a specialist in vehicle ergonomics for Consumer Reports. Mutchler was among the speakers at a D.C. forum on older drivers this year.

But it may be just a short hug.

They see how the advanced features can counter some of the effects of aging, he said. On the other hand, the devices can be expensive, they make car selection more complicated, they increase the learning time for the new car owner and they might create their own distractions while driving. Beeping alerts and electronic voices give more feedback than some drivers are prepared to handle.

A modern car isn’t the mechanical device many of today’s older drivers grew up with, said Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and another participant in the driving forum. “It’s a piece of software,” he said.

The car-purchasing process needs to be redesigned to take that into account, Coughlin said.

“Before leaving the dealership,” Hobson told her students, “know what your cars can do.”

Bob Perrino, a retiree who lives in Arlington County, hasn’t taken her class, but he understands the message from personal experience.

He replaced his 2001 Protegé with a new Mazda 3. “As I was test-driving the car, the salesperson mentioned ‘pairing.’ I asked her to repeat herself three times. I did not know the word ‘pairing’! Never heard that word in my life.

“On occasion, I accidentally press a button on my steering wheel and a voice starts talking to me. Something to do with the phone that I have not ‘paired.’ I yell ‘No!’ and it stops.”

He feels like he should have gotten a PhD to operate the sound system.

“Sometimes I miss my old Protegé,” Perrino said.


The Audi Connect system. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)

Auto technology changes rapidly between car purchases, and some features that used to be add-ons are now standard equipment. Even relatively simple models allow the driver to link a cellphone with the vehicle’s audio system via Bluetooth. This “pairing” — if desired — is one of those things the salesperson can assist with, before the new owner leaves the lot.

Automakers don’t pitch sales campaigns to older drivers. Imagine the marketing disaster: “Buy our car. Old people love it!”

But drivers figure out what they like anyway. Mutchler pointed out that minivans are popular among two groups with different needs: families with children and empty-nesters. The latter appreciate the visibility from the driver’s seat.

The definition of an “older driver” is squishy. The average age of people in the AARP Driver Safety classrooms is early 70s, said Julie Lee, national director of the program. For the online version, it’s early 60s.

But many people taking these courses got their driver’s licenses when they were teenagers. So although much of the program is about change, it’s also about remembering what you were taught in the first place.

A big portion of the course is devoted to reviewing the rules of the road. “The speed limit is the speed limit,” Rose says about once an hour. She also reviews stopping distances and the visual checks on how to maintain proper spacing between vehicles.

Adapting longtime driving strategies to fit today’s circumstances also is important. A tip that drivers may have scoffed at when younger is taken very seriously in Hobson’s class: Instead of making a left turn at a busy intersection, why not go up a block and make three right turns to get in the correct lane?

Auto insurance companies recognize the value of such instruction. A third of all fatal crashes involving older drivers occur at intersections. Many companies give discounts to course graduates.

Hobson’s key role isn’t saving people money. It’s getting her students to honestly reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and drive accordingly.

Read Hobson’s tips for drivers young and old

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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