Consider your driver’s license: It’s so much more than permission to operate a motor vehicle on the nation’s roadways. It’s the official photo ID used by most adults. It’s a passport to vote, get on a plane, claim benefits, get a loan, cash checks and buy alcohol, tobacco or guns. It’s the most common form of ID used to pass background checks to volunteer or get concealed weapons permits. If you drop your wallet, your driver’s license includes the contact information needed to return it. If you’re found alone and unconscious, it tells emergency responders who you are.

No wonder we cringe at the thought of giving up our driver’s licenses. It’s a symbol of independence and competence, and its tangible worth in letting us get around an area without abundant public transportation is tough to overstate.

Earning that first driver’s license is a celebrated first step toward autonomy as a responsible young adult. Every state has a minimum age requirement for earning a license.

But no state has a maximum age limit. Drivers may be required to renew their licenses more often and take vision or dexterity tests as part of the renewal process as they age. The “Idaho Driver’s Handbook” lists age 63 as the start of more frequent renewals. The “Washington Driver Guide” doesn’t specify an age, but lists driving behaviors that can result in denial of a license renewal. But by and large, the difficult decision on when it’s time to stop driving falls to the individual. It may be one of the hardest steps faced by responsible older adults.

Nobody wants to witness, much less be, that “scary driver” who makes a wrong turn onto a busy one-way street, cruises through a four-way stop in a school zone or drives under the limit in the left lane of a congested freeway. Smart driving courses can help. The nonprofit classes are sponsored by the AARP, with the goal of helping participants “to drive safely longer,” according to Kathleen Gaines, the north central Idaho coordina-tor for the program.

According to national data illustrated in the AARP Smart Driver Guidebook, seniors cause more driver fatalities per mile driven than younger drivers. Physical changes — including diminishing hearing and sight, slowing reflexes and weakening muscles — are a fact we all have to reckon with as we age. Those changes present extra challenges while driving and also lead to a greater number of fatalities among seniors involved in traffic accidents. The goal of the AARP course is to make drivers aware of the effects of aging and learn ways to minimize them.

Just 10 days before stay-at-home directives were issued in early March, I had the good fortune to attend a two-day, in-person course in Moscow led by Gaines, Dennis Griner and Colleen Bausch. After months of being in limbo because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the AARP classes recently resumed in an online-only format (see sidebar for details). Here is some of what I learned:

All those bells & whistles on modern vehicles can make me a safer driver.

Given the choice — which hasn’t been the case for many years — I prefer hand-powered window cranks, standard transmissions and impossible-to-refold paper maps. But research shows that anti-lock brakes, automatic high- or low-beam headlights, loud alerts if I’m on track to back into someone or something and other safety features reduce the chances of an accident when I’m at the wheel.

Speaking of which: The proper, safer position for both hands on the wheel is not what I thought. Plus, there’s an optimum distance from the steering wheel to be maintained. I’m working on incorporating those best practices into my regular habits as a driver.

simple, sustained actions can improve my driving skills.

Successfully operating a motor vehicle is a complex set of mental calculations, sensory interpretations and physical reactions. Who knew eating a healthful diet, exercising regularly, building flexibility and strength, sleeping enough had anything to do with driving safely? These actions can be taken not only to accommodate our aging bodies, but also to improve our current abilities and quality of life. We gain the “power to age well,” whether or not we’re in the driver’s seat.

Insurance companies reward smart driver course graduates

What a bonus: Completion of the AARP driving class may qualify you for car insurance discounts. Reductions in premium costs vary by company. In Idaho, most carriers grant a three-year discount; in Washington, most insurers grant at least a two-year discount. The class can also help drivers who’ve accumulated dings against their driving record through accidents or traffic violations. Class completion can erase some of the “points,” as they’re called, on the books.

Too many tips to convey here.

You no doubt noticed my summary of the March driving class is short on details. That’s on purpose. Not because I don’t remember the details or haven’t been trying to practice them, but because taking part in the course will be better for you and your driving than any description I could provide.

As a classmate remarked upon completing the course, “Now I’m more confident about making a road trip to see my grandkids.”

AARP moves smart driver class online

Because of COVID-19, AARP has canceled all in-person driver safety classes throughout the nation for the remainder of 2020 or until it is safe to meet in a classroom setting. However, the course is available online. It takes 6 to 8 hours to complete, and participants can take breaks and come back to the class later.

The course costs $27.95, which covers the cost of printed materials, shipping, recording of certificates in the national office and mileage for instructors who travel to put on classes, according to Kay Gaines, the North Central Idaho coordinator for the nonprofit program.

To take part, visit and follow the prompts. Be sure to choose the state of residence to be eligible for discounts at that state’s insurance companies. At the end of the class, participants can print out a certificate of completion to share with their insurers. Most companies will give course graduates a discount on their insurance.

The course was developed for those 50 and older, but drivers of all ages may participate. The course may be accepted by companies that require staff to complete a driver safety class; those interested are advised to check with their employers.

Gaines encourages seniors who are gun shy of computers to take the online course in small segments with a tech-savvy relative who, she notes, also would benefit from the class material. The online program also has “a helpline that is quite good,” Gaines says. She can be reached at (208) 816-3450 for more information.

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