Just about every week, AARP offers classes for older drivers to keep them safe on the roads. Few are taking them.
Minnesota has more than 1.5 million drivers age 55 and older — accounting for more than 20% of all licensed drivers in the state in 2020 — yet only a quarter of them have taken a class, which comes with a state-mandated 10% reduction in car insurance rates annually.
"Some don't drive, but others don't want to bother," said Alan Ainsworth, deputy state coordinator for Minnesota AARP Driver Safety and a volunteer instructor. "We talked to a few hundred people at the State Fair and most didn't know about it."
Ainsworth said he is hoping to raise awareness of AARP's Smart Driver courses and similar education offered by the Minnesota Safety Council and AAA during National Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, which starts Monday and runs through Friday.
From 2011 to 2019 in Minnesota, crashes involving drivers age 60 and older rose from 13% of all crashes to 16%, injuries resulting from motor vehicle wrecks jumped from 8% to 20% and deaths increased from 21% to 30%, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
The numbers led the Minnesota Department of Transportation to add an "Older Drivers" category to its 2020-2024 Strategic Highway Safety Plan, which provides direction for future safety strategies in the areas of enforcement, education, engineering and emergency medical services and trauma systems.
Classes for first-time participants run eight hours, often split over two days, Ainsworth said. Refresher courses required every three years to keep the insurance discount run only four hours. To make it easier to participate, AARP and AAA also offer online courses.
Courses cover everything from defensive driving to current rules of the road to risks associated with driving in bad weather. Of course, some topics raise questions and lots of discussion, such as how to navigate roundabouts, Ainsworth said. The newer J-Turns — intersections where drivers are forced to make a right turn, go down several hundred feet to an opening in the median and make a U-turn before returning to the original intersection to complete their movement — spark discussion, too.
"They find it a bit confusing to negotiate," Ainsworth said.
Instructors also cover what to do and not to when driving through construction zones, interacting with school buses and pedestrians and using child safety seats, Ainsworth said.
Perhaps some of the most valuable information comes in sections tackling how medications affect driving, and from strategies to navigate potentially problematic situations, such as making left turns or crossing intersections. Older drivers often can have difficulty judging the speed of oncoming traffic.
"We don't see them as well," Ainsworth said.
Ainsworth said AARP's research shows 97% of class participants modify at least one driving habit after taking a class. Nearly 80% said information from the course has prevented them from being in a crash, Ainsworth said.
"It's the best and safest investment you can make," he said. "And you save up to $300 over three years, guaranteed."