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Seniors take refresher course to remain in the driver's seat

Staff report

Agnes Bender, 82, says senior citizens who take the driving course she instructs are most concerned with keeping their freedom.

"The major concern is not wanting to lose their license because they don't want to be stranded," Bender said. "They want to be independent."

Bender teaches an AARP Mature Driving Course at the Golden Circle Seniors center in Golconda, Illinois, which is one of the closest AARP courses to Paducah. Such courses can serve as a refresher for drivers 55 years old and up. According to the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety, mature drivers may not be a huge risk on the road, but as people age, their skills change.

The agency recommends mature drivers have their vision checked regularly. Other age-related driving issues, according to the agency, include diminished strength, coordination and flexibility.

According to the safety office, 227 of the 638 driving fatalities in Kentucky in 2013 involved mature drivers. The fatality total includes any death in a wreck, not just a driver's death.

In 2014 (through Aug. 4), there have been 112 driving fatalities in Kentucky involving mature drivers.

In Bender's class, she offers participants insight on how to protect themselves and others on the road through tips that some mature drivers may not consider as they age. For example, she gives safety advice on what medications should not be taken just before driving, how to look out for bus stops and what stop lights look like at night to individuals with cataracts.

Bender, who has been teaching the course about 17 years, drives all over the country to see her children. She noted that senior drivers are generally the most experienced, but as the rules of the road change, a refresher can be useful.

"Most of them who come to class have traveled quite a bit," she said. "Most say it helps them remember things."

However, decades of driving in the same area can sometimes lead to poor habits, Bender said.

"You get in the habit of driving in the same place all the time and you forget to look," Bender said. "One time someone is going to be coming."

The AARP course does not include an exam. Rather, it focuses on group discussion and driver concerns. Bender said many of her participants ask about how to handle the circle drives around courthouse squares or seek tips for interstate driving. Bender noted interstates came after many of today's seniors learned to drive.

Students in the driving course also talk about vehicles and newer devices in cars. Bender said seniors should look at visibility and how easily seats adjust when shopping for a car. Bender owns a car with a backup camera, also known as a "reversing camera," which shows her the car's rear view from a screen on the dash.

Karen Keown, western Kentucky program coordinator for KOHS in Bowling Green, said most older people have a "lifetime of valuable driving experience and are capable drivers," and decisions about a person's ability to drive should not be based on age alone.

"While most older people take appropriate steps when they detect a problem with their driving, it's not always obvious when a general health problem, vision problem or side effect of medication will lead to a driving impairment," she said. "That's when the observations of loved ones and health professionals are most vital."

Bender's next course will be held on Nov. 2 in Golconda. In Kentucky, instructor Carol Rhodes teaches the course at Lyon County Senior Center in Eddyville and the Center for Health and Wellness in Murray, according to information from AARP.

Rich Suwanski of  the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer contributed to this story.

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