Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Sound Publishing’s The Time of Your Life, Spring 2015.
It’s that age-old argument — when should older drivers quit driving? At what age is it not “safe” to continue behind the wheel?
Those questions are ones that Mary and Danny Lilleness have heard many times. As operators of AAA Driving Improvement Program, the Lillenesses know the answers aren’t simple.
“There’s no set rule,” Mary Lilleness said. “It all depends on the driver. We’ve got a gentleman over on Mercer Island who’s 106 and still driving. He does I-5 and 405 and I-90 without any problems.”
In 1986, the Washington State Legislature passed a law authorizing insurance companies to give discounts to drivers age 55 and over if they successfully completed a safe driving course. That’s when the Lillenesses began teaching the class for the AAA of Washington.
In any given year, they teach 50 classes throughout western Washington with anywhere from 25 to 65 seniors attending each class.
Topics in the class include how to use your eyes to gather information while driving; what the environment, traffic situations and other drivers are telling you; making decisions about the speed you should travel; maintaining safe distance around your vehicle; what can come up and how to deal with emergencies; keeping your vehicle in good operating condition; making responsible decisions about drinking and driving; and emotions, preventing road rage, fatigue and drowsy driving, distractions, the aging process and effects of medications.
The one-day course costs $18 for AAA members and $25 for non-members. Additionally, Danny will give private driving instructions behind-the-wheel for seniors at $250 and up for 60 to 90 minutes. Completion of the one day course gives the senior a letter to present to his or her insurance company for discounted premiums.
Seniors also can get a letter to verify their ability to drive to give to a requesting physician or family member.
Danny has been a professional driving instructor in Washington since 1977, teaching both teens and adults. He’s taught for AAA since 1987. He’s also conducted safe-driving programs for the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Agriculture, Puget Sound Energy, Weyerhaeuser, Seattle University staff and a number of hospitals in King County.
“By the time lunch rolls around, we’re all friends,” Danny said of the people who take his class. “My goal is to get them to think about their driving while they’re driving.”
Older drivers are, for the most part, very good drivers, he said.
“Younger drivers always think older drivers drive too slow,” he said. “But that’s not really the case. They’re cautious and they’ve had lots of experience behind the wheel and that makes them better at driving than younger folks.”
According to Mary, the classes are fun and sometimes include a lively discussion of how to handle any given situation.
“We had a lady wondering about what to do when she’s driving the speed limit in the slow lane and someone is tailgating her,” Lilleness said. “In that case, the tailgater wants you to move lanes because he doesn’t want to move lanes. But actually, the woman who asked the question is in the right and doesn’t need to move.”
How to act in these situations and how to avoid road rage is a topic in the class.
Another question often asked is what about driving slow in the fast lane, she said.
“Stay to the right, unless you are passing,” she said. “The left lane is not a lane of travel for someone who is driving the speed limit.”
Mary said recently she had a call from a woman who had concerns about her aging parents and whether they should still be driving.
“She called from out of state,” Mary said. “I sent her the information about the class and told her to have them come.”
Additionally, she suggested that the woman’s parents take a behind-the-wheel class from her husband, who could then better assess whether they are still safe drivers.
With America aging, Mary said safe driving courses are becoming more popular all the time.
“Let’s face it, we’re all getting older,” she said. “It never hurts to have a refresher course. It’s been awhile since high school when we all took driver’s ed.”
To find a class, go to www.aaawa.com/trafficsafety/driverimprovement, or call 206-243-3564.