An AARP driver-safety course provides a discount on insurance premiums. But for aging drivers, it does a lot more.
Sarah Walker of Sun City Hilton Head recently took the four-hour refresher course.
"In addition to saving on the insurance, I, just for my own benefit, want to know what laws have changed," she said. "It keeps you updated as to driving, reminds you the rules of the road."
And beyond that, Walker said the course is a good reminder that as drivers age, the road can become more dangerous.
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"As you get older, your reflexes slow down," she said. "All sorts of things can affect your driving. ... You should take precautions."
Dr. Philip Cusumano, an internist with Lady's Island Internal Medicine, said most people's reaction time starts worsening between age 50 and 60. That's mainly because the nerve tissue doesn't respond as well in older adults as in younger ones.
He said another reason for slower reflexes is that older people tend to focus on one thing rather than on two or three.
"So if they're driving and a tree branch falls on a windshield while somebody's walking in front of them, they will focus on one thing, not both," he said. "So that overall lengthens their reaction time."
Cusumano said older people also tend to be more careful than younger ones. They think about things more. If there's an urgent situation, they don't react as quickly as a younger person, who might be more impulsive.
And a fourth reason for the slower reaction time is medication. He said medicines such as Xanax, Valium or pain medications can be very dangerous in people older than age 70, especially when they're driving.
Cusumano said that while we can't control the aging process, there are things we can do to improve reaction time.
He recommends staying in shape because muscle tone will improve reaction time. He said to avoid sedatives, make sure to get enough sleep and drink caffeine when you're going to be driving.
"Caffeine really does help reaction time," he said. "And there's nothing wrong with having one or two cups of coffee in the morning."
AARP driver safety course instructor Joyce Tartow said in her class she discusses the importance of planning ahead before getting behind the wheel.
"You want to be prepared," she said. "You want to not be aggressive, not be overly anxious, not be in a hurry, but you want to have thought about everything that's going on out there so that when and if something should occur, you already have alternatives of how you're going to deal with that. ... It's like studying for a final."
As part of that planning, Tartow encourages her students to make sure everything on their vehicles is in good working condition.
Participants also learn to assess themselves -- their vision, hearing, mental acuity and physical dexterity.
Then they break into groups to discuss a tough subject -- when is it time to hang up the keys?
"It's a very difficult thing to do to somebody," Tartow said. "When you take their keys away, it takes away their independence."