When Michigan retirees Willie and Lois Gales asked for a way to ease a $200 increase in their auto insurance rate, they ended up at a two-day safety class in Detroit designed for older drivers.
They got tips to prepare for worsening eyesight and slower reaction times, and learned about road signs, left turns and bus stops. The Galeses expect to get an $80-plus discount on their annual two-car premium in exchange for taking the course last week.
“The reason why we went is because our insurance went up quite a bit,” says Lois Gales, 74, of Detroit. “I learned some things that I didn’t know. It increased my knowledge so I will be more alert.”
State lawmakers are hoping more seniors sign up for classes offered by the AARP, AAA Michigan and other groups. The state Senate could approve legislation this week that would allow, but not require, insurers to give discounts to Michigan drivers age 50 and older who take a safety course.
The Insurance Institute of Michigan says the state’s insurance code currently allows for senior discounts. The Hartford, for example, offered a discount to the Galeses. But the AARP calls it a gray area and says some insurers don’t think they can discount premiums without the legislation.
The country’s largest senior advocacy group sees the legislation as a starting point to persuade Michigan insurers to offer senior discounts and get more seniors to take safety classes. Nearly 53,000 people in Minnesota completed the AARP class in 2005, while Michigan had just 2,800 graduates.
The eight-hour class aims to maintain or improve seniors’ driving skills, and could help address another pressing concern. U.S. residents age 65 and older are expected to double in the next 25 years and make up a quarter of the driving population.
This helps prolong the period where seniors can drive safely and stay in dwellings where they’re taking care of themselves rather than relying on others,” says AARP Michigan President Eric Schneidewind.
The bill’s backers acknowledge it could be better. Thirty-six states require insurance discounts for seniors who take safety classes. Michigan’s system would be voluntary because the insurance lobby opposes mandated discounts.
Voluntary safety classes are less controversial than regulations seen as singling out seniors. While 34 states including Michigan require drivers to take vision tests when renewing their license, about 15 have more frequent testing for older drivers.
Just two states, Illinois and New Hampshire, require seniors to take a road test. Michigan has a process in place so citizens, including family members, can refer unsafe drivers to be re-examined by the state.
There can be an eight-year gap between visits to renew a driver’s license in Michigan, causing concern that diminishing eyesight or health among seniors could lead to accidents. But Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land recently said treating seniors differently would be a form of age discrimination.
Also, studies of the effectiveness of tougher regulations on crash rates have been mixed.
There’s anecdotal evidence that senior refresher courses are helpful. The AARP says 92 percent of participants reported changing at least one driving behavior as a result of taking the course.
Age can sneak up on seniors, according to LeRoy Fladseth, AARP Michigan’s driver safety coordinator. Safety classes teach motorists to keep a safe following distance, check for blind spots, know the effects of medication on driving and exercise certain muscle groups used to drive, among other things.
“Traffic on the roads today is not like it was 30, 40, 50 years ago. The rules are different. You have to adjust,” Fladseth says.
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