AARP classes aim to boost driver safety

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Jamie Lee Pricer

“Am I a safe driver?”

That’s what Kathryn Malott wants seniors to think every time they put their car key in the ignition.

The Desert Hot Springs resident says she’s found her way “to give back” as the district coordinator for AARP Driver Safety Course designed for drivers ages 55 and older.

Basically, the classes show seniors how to remain safe, competent drivers; save money on car insurance and learn about new features on cars and about new laws.

These eight-hour classes are so popular in the Coachella Valley that signup sheets fill quickly. Fee is usually $20 to $25.

Most people want to continue driving for as long as they can, says Malott, a grandmother of three boys. She’s seen what happens when seniors can no longer drive. 

“I so believe in this class,” she says. “Once, my mom asked me, ‘What do you think of my driving?’ I told her, ‘I think you are a little cautious driving down Country Club Drive at 35 mph.’ ”

Malott’s mom developed lung cancer, her oxygen level dropped and her doctor told her she could no longer drive. Even though Malott pointed out that she had chauffeured her mom around for some months, she was devastated.

“I asked her why. She said it’s ‘because I can’t drive. My independence is gone.’

“She was so crushed, and died in weeks.”

As one of a small crew of trained instructors in the vast desert district, Malott’s goal “is to keep seniors on the road driving safely as long as they can. I have taught more than 750 drivers; that’s 750 safer drivers.”

New rules of the road

Basically, she says, “You gotta beef ’em up on the new rules.”

For instance, if you turn on your windshield wipers, you also must turn on your lights. If there is anyone under 18 in car, no one can smoke.

And what she calls the move over law — if you pass a police care or tow truck you must move over one lane to the left if you can, or move the left edge of your current lane and drop your speed about 30 miles an hour. 

In class, usually divided into four hours on two consecutive days, “We talk about eye sight, hearing, different medications and conditions that can affect driving,” Malott says.

She estimates about 80 percent of students take the class because they want their car insurance rates cut.

Insurance discounts

In California and 34 other states, automobile insurance companies must offer insurance discounts to people who complete a classroom-based, state-approved driver-improvement course. Discounts vary based on the participant’s age, driving record and other factors. Most are about 10 percent, says Malott.

California is also one of 23 states that require automobile insurance companies to offer insurance discounts to people who complete an online state-approved driver-improvement course.

“You can take the class online,” says Malott, “but I think seniors need feedback. They want to talk. I hear a lot of questions in class and that brings in more ideas. Class helps make it more real.”

Most Coachella Valley classes are given from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. the second Monday and Tuesday of each month at Mizell Senior Center in Palm Springs.

“We’d offer more if we had the space,” said Ian Murray, director of programs at Mizell.

Indeed, the driver safety classes are so popular Malott says she could teach every day. “I hope to see several sessions each month in more places around the valley.”