DETROIT — Joe Minerva has been driving since 1946. He’s a skilled and disciplined driver and has never been in an accident.
So he was surprised how much he learned when he recently took his first-ever driving class. During the six-hour AARP course at his local senior center, he learned the places in his city where the most accidents occur. He was surprised to find that he could be ticketed for holding up traffic even if he was driving the speed limit. And he was fascinated by the new auto safety technology the instructor described.
“I couldn’t believe what I didn’t know,” said Minerva, an 86-year-old retired machinist from Huntington, N.Y. “I think that young drivers should be required to take that course.”
Americans are living – and driving – longer than they used to. There are more than 36 million licensed drivers older than 65 in the U.S., up 34 percent from 1999, according to government data. By 2030, as the baby boom generation ages, 70 million Americans will be older than 65, and the vast majority of them will have drivers’ licenses.
Older drivers are less likely than other age groups to be involved in fatal crashes, partly because they drive fewer miles. But when they do crash, they’re more likely to die because their bodies are more susceptible to injury. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says drivers 70 and older are 3.2 times more likely to die in a crash than drivers ages 35-54.
Aging-related physical and mental changes can hamper older drivers, especially during tricky maneuvers such as merging onto a highway. Multiple-vehicle crashes at intersections accounted for 40 percent of fatal crashes for drivers 80 and older in 2013, but only 19 percent for drivers ages 16-59, the institute said.
AARP’s driving classes, which have been taught since 1979, reach more than 500,000 people each year. They’re available both online and in person, and they cost around $15 for AARP members.
Kyle Rakow, AARP’s director of driver safety, said many participants say the classes made them change at least one driving behavior, such as avoiding night driving or bad weather.
Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia offer insurance discounts for seniors who take the in-person classes. Minerva said his insurance bill will drop by $1,800 over a three-year period as a result of his course.
But some say more is needed. Susan Cohen, who founded Americans for Older Driver Safety after her 20-year-old son was struck and killed by an 83-year-old driver, is developing brochures that could be passed out at senior centers, libraries and other places so that seniors don’t have to take a class at all. She also wants physicians to give safety information to older drivers, and help them connect with resources, like occupational therapists who are trained to help drivers.