By Alex Lippa
---- — SALEM — Frances Avella, 79, of Atkinson has been driving for more than 60 years. But she had only taken a driver’s education course once — until yesterday
Avella was one of a dozen seniors brushing up on their driving skills at the Ingram Senior Center in Salem. The seniors were attending driver safety courses hosted by the AARP. The courses, geared toward drivers 50 and older, are on the list of “603 Reasons” people love New Hampshire.
“There are so many new rules now,” Avella said. “I feel like I need a refresher.”
Richard Cote of Londonderry has taught driving courses to seniors for 12 years. He said there are several possible hazards which drivers have to be aware of as they get older.
“They don’t react as well as they used to,” Cote said. “Most of the accidents of people ages 50 and over occur at intersections and left turns. That’s because as we age we lose our depth perception and our vision isn’t quite as good.”
Dan Andrews, AARP’s New Hampshire driver safety coordinator, said AARP will teach 80 classes to 700 people in New Hampshire this year.
“We want our drivers to be safe,” Andrews said. “Ninety-seven percent of all drivers have changed at least one aspect of their driving after taking the class.”
Forty-six percent of drivers in New Hampshire are over 50, according to the New Hampshire Department of Safety. More than 6 percent of New Hampshire drivers are over 75. There are even 24 drivers who are still driving at over 100.
Improving their driving is one benefit, but there is another allure for seniors taking the course.
“It’s going to help make my insurance a lot cheaper,” said Freda Smith, 85, of Salem.
Andrews said several insurance agencies in New Hampshire offer drivers a discount on their car insurance if they complete the course.
“It’s estimated that nearly $128 million has been saved on auto insurance nationwide in the 30 years that we have been teaching this course,” Andrews said.
New Hampshire does not have mandatory car insurance, nor are older drivers required to take a retest before renewing their licenses.
Marie Farrell, 77, of Salem said she wanted to make sure she was up to speed with new driving rules.
“Sometimes I’m not sure what all the street signs mean,” she said. “I also want to know if there are rules against taking certain drugs or medications while driving.”
Dorayne Passler, 60, of Salem, said she wanted to see what has changed since she last took a driver’s education course in high school.
“I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot,” she said yesterday. “I think it’s good as we get older to review things and to make sure we’re still safe on the road as we age. Things change over the year, as the cars obviously get a lot more sophisticated.”
Cote said it’s not just the mind that slows down over time.
“People aren’t as limber as they used to be,” he said. “We talk about going from the brake to the gas pedal. We talk about being able to peek over your shoulder to check if a car is coming from behind. It’s all about wanting to make people aware that this is happening.”
Cote’s course is split into two four-hour classes. There’s no test at the end, but Cote tries to make it challenging for the students.
“I’ll quiz them along the way,” he said. “We’ll also give them a little bit of homework before graduation.”
The course costs $12 for AARP members, $14 for nonmembers. There is an online course available at $15.95 for AARP members, $19.95 for nonmembers. For more information, visit aarp.org/findacourse.