boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Still in the driver's seat

Elder motorists learn how to tune up road skills that may be a bit rusty

Y es, the gray heads nodded, they'd heard the other drivers honking at them. Felt suddenly disoriented in a busy intersection. Been lost close to home. Some even admitted to a minor fender-bender or two.

The roads had become less friendly than they used to be.

But these seniors weren't quite ready to relinquish their keys. They were among a dozen students in their 60s, 70s and 80s who recently gathered at the Weston Council on Aging for the AARP Driver Safety Program -- eight hours of classroom lectures, films, and self-assessment quizzes taught over two days.

"I want seniors to continue driving safely," said the class instructor, 88-year-old Harold Homefield, a sprightly, bow-tie-clad man who presided over a lively session. "We're married to our cars."

It's a hard truth: Age creeps up on senior citizens and makes nonnegotiable demands on their vision, hearing, reaction time, coordination, and judgment.

Drivers age 75 and older are tied with 16- to 24-year-olds as the nation's most crash-prone drivers, according to federal statistics, and drivers 85 and older are considered the most dangerous of all. And the crashes have serious consequences: Drivers age 70 and over are twice as likely to be killed as a result of a crash as someone younger, and drivers age 80 and over are four times as likely, because their bodies are less able to withstand serious injury.

The driving class is meant to help elders who are safe drivers stay that way, not to encourage unsafe drivers to stay on the road, said Elinor Ginzler, director of the Washington based AARP's Livable Communities programs.

"Nobody wants unsafe roads. If the roads aren't safe, we're all in trouble," she said.

With the number of seniors on the road poised to rise dramatically, transportation issues are at the forefront of AARP's agenda.

In 2004, one in seven licensed drivers on the road was age 65 or older, a 17 percent increase from 1994. That number will balloon as the baby boomers age, to one in four by 2029.

For Homefield, a World War II veteran from Sudbury and an 18-year volunteer for the AARP program, teaching senior citizens to drive more safely is a personal mission.

By retraining themselves to be keener while on the road, Homefield believes some seniors can turn back time -- just a little -- and stay independent longer.

"People have a lot of fear that their license will be taken away, and that their quality of life and ability to socialize will be reduced," said Homefield, a retired teacher and school administrator whose first car was a 1939 Packard.

It's especially frightening to lose your independence in the Boston suburbs, which offers few options for public transport, he said. "It's very hard to live in isolation."

At the start of the sessions, students are given an AARP safety workbook and a copy of the Massachusetts Driver's Manual provided by the state Registry of Motor Vehicles. Homefield then goes over the basics with students.

Have seats, steering wheel, and car mirrors been adjusted recently to suit bodies that may have grown thinner or less flexible? Does the automobile have clean windshields and windows? Aging eyes score worse on tests of depth perception, so does the driver have up-to-date prescription lenses?

He addresses the situations that most commonly trip up older drivers -- busy intersections and merging onto highways.

Homefield coaches students to count three seconds -- to allow approximately 300 feet between them and the car ahead -- before they merge onto a busy highway such as Route 128. "Don't ever permit yourself to get pushed into a situation you know isn't safe, no matter how much the idiot behind you is honking," he said. "And never, ever back up on the highway!"

David Kominz, 83, of Weston said the distance tip was particularly useful.

Several weeks after the class was over, he was still using the three-second rule almost every day, said Kominz, who attended the class as a general refresher at the suggestion of his wife, who occupies the passenger seat of their 2005 Toyota Prius.

Refusing to acknowledge one's age "is the wrong attitude" to take behind the wheel, he said. "You have to accept that you are getting old."

Kominz said he hoped he would be safe to drive for many more years, unlike his late father, who had to be ordered to stop driving because of complications from diabetes. "And my Dad's life became miserable when they took the keys away from him," Kominz said.

Thirty people -- a full house -- signed up for another of Homefield's recent classes held at Emerson Hospital in Concord,

"You drive for so long you don't realize the small changes," said Ann Cullerton of Westford, a senior who came to the class after a dog ran in front of her car.

She stopped short and there was no collision, but the incident unsettled her, Cullerton said.

"It's a reminder of what we knew when we were younger. At first, my friends laughed. But now they want to know when the next class is."

Some students need to be brought up to speed on the changes in automobile technology, including antilock brakes and airbags. Some need information about cultural shifts in driving, such as cellphone use and road rage.

Others want to hear about new features that make driving easier, like GPS, OnStar, and proximity sensors that warn when another car is too close.

Older drivers also need to be reminded about compulsory seat-belt laws, and regulations mandating that children under age 5 be placed in special back-seat booster chairs.

"You want to drive your grandchild or great-grandchild around?" Homefield counseled the Emerson students. "Never, ever put them in the front seat. That airbag goes off like a gunshot."

Like many others attending the class, Ernest Stern, 79, of Concord said he self-polices himself, choosing less-traveled routes and times of day to take him where he wants to go.

"You get more aware of your limitations when you get old," said Stern, who said he signed up for the class after experiencing a "scary" incident while trying to merge into traffic.

Part of the curriculum is dedicated to such self-regulating behavior -- avoiding nighttime drives or unfamiliar places -- as well as the ultra delicate subject of when it's time to stop driving, and how to approach a spouse or friend no longer capable of operating a car.

"You have to be gentle about it so you don't make them too defensive to listen. You say, 'I am worried about you.' You don't say, 'You're a lousy driver and you should get off the road before you kill someone,' " Homefield advised.

Families who need help persuading a senior to stop driving can find detailed advice guides at thehartford.com, or contact their local AAA club or Council on Aging for more counseling and assessment tools.

AARP's driving class, formerly called "55 Alive," has existed for 28 years, but has become more formal and detailed in recent years to keep up with demand, Ginzler said.

Media coverage of high-profile crashes caused by older drivers has prompted periodic debates about license renewal and testing.

In 2003, an 86-year-old California man mistook his accelerator for the brake and plowed his Buick LeSabre into a busy Santa Monica outdoor market, killing 10 people and injuring 70 more.

He was convicted of negligence and vehicular manslaughter and the case fueled a nationwide debate over whether states should enact age-based driver screenings.

Ginzler said AARP is not against more stringent policies, but wants to see driver licensing criteria that focus on ability, not age.

The group supports a recent move by some states to require written driving tests for all license renewals, and for those who fail, cognitive screening and on-the-road exams.

"We say that driving is about your ability and how well you function, not your birthday," Ginzler said.

Last year, about 600,000 seniors nationwide completed the class, with 10,000 volunteers teaching the class about 30,000 times, she said. About 15,000 more people took the course online since it went live last July.

Massachusetts had one of the lowest turnouts -- just 500 students -- possibly because it is one of a handful of states that does not offer an insurance discount to participants.

In addition to offering educational programs, Ginzler said, AARP is also lobbying for larger signs and wider roads nationwide to make driving easier for seniors, and for more public transportation options to prevent isolation and depression in homebound elders.

In a recent AARP poll, more than half of nondrivers reported feeling "stuck" at home, she said.

"As people live longer, they are outliving their driving years and we want to help people age successfully in their communities," Ginzler said.

Homefield said he plans to continue teaching AARP classes for as long as he can drive his own 2003 Cadillac DeVille. More driver education for seniors means safer roads for everyone, he said.

"I really do hope I've been helpful in keeping down the numbers of accidents."

"We want to keep everyone out of trouble."

For more information about AARP's Driver Safety Program, log on to aarp.org.

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES