By CATEY HILL
Drawn by the desire to stay on the road and lower auto insurance costs, a growing number of older Americans are signing up for driving school. But some of the fastest-growing classes aren't behind the wheel. They're behind a keyboard.
That's right: Adults can now take driver's ed without ever sitting in a car labeled "student driver" or making a single three-point turn. Instead, online classes -- typically four to eight hours in total screen time -- have become the fastest way for adults to brush up before a driving test or secure a discount on auto insurance. The AARP's online driver safety course had more than 60,000 students nationwide in 2010, up 30% from a year earlier. By July of this year, another 40,000 had already enrolled. Participation in the American Automobile Association's national online senior driving course has also increased an average of 20% per year over the last three years. "There's been an increasing level of interest from seniors," says Wade Mezey, president of Professional Driving Associates, which runs an online defensive driving course.
But when it comes to actually being a better driver, experts and driving instructors say online courses might not help. "Research shows that classroom programs don't really impact positively on driving performance," says Normand Teasdale, a professor at the University Laval in Quebec, who studies driving patterns among seniors. "You need to practice and get feedback over and over again to improve performance."
For some seniors, this is particularly important, says Jim Cornelius, owner of Sunshine Driving School in Oaji, Calif. Though no one of any age likes to admit to anything less than full mastery behind the wheel, as people age, reaction times tend to slow, vision deteriorates and the ability to focus declines, research shows all of which affect the ability to drive safely. Twenty-eight states now have special licensing requirements for older drivers (typically those over 65 or 70), which often includes renewing their licenses more frequently and taking a road test; other states are expected to follow.
The companies that offer online courses say they're valuable even without road work. Bill Van Tassel, the manager of the driver training safety program for AAA, counters that the online courses are valuable in part because they help older drivers get familiar with new car technology and inform them of any changes to traffic laws. And 97% of seniors who took AARP's online or classroom driving course said that they changed at least one driving behavior because of it, according to a survey conducted by AARP.
Of course, for many who sign up, becoming a better driver isn't really the point. Saving money is often the primary motivation, says Julie Lee, vice president of AARP's Driver Safety Program. More than 30 states now mandate auto insurance discounts for older adults who complete an approved senior driving course, according to data from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. The discounts vary by state and range from 2% to 15%; for the average driver, a 15% discount would result in roughly $120 per year in savings. A four- to eight-hour online or classroom course will typically qualify you for the same discount as one for taking an on-the-road course, says Lynne McChristian, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute.
For anyone with a few hours to kill, the insurance discount alone may make the course worth it. For the roughly $20 price of the course, a driver could save many times that over the course of a year on car insurance. And supporters say these courses can pinpoint -- and provide solutions for common driving mistakes for seniors (drifting out of lane, rolling through stops, difficulties making left turns)."There's a real upside to taking these classes, and there's not a real downside," says McChristian.
But for those who are more serious about staying behind the wheel for as long as possible, some experts recommend a more comprehensive road course, which typically cost between $50 and $100 an hour. Drivers need to practice to improve, and feedback from a qualified instructor can help, says Teasdale. "On-the-road practice with a classroom class is more effective."