AARP representatives gear up for resuming driver safety course

Chet Kowalski, of the Village of Hemingway, is the coordinator of the AARP Safe Driver Courses in The Villages.

For 35 years, the state of Florida has mandated that drivers 65 and older who complete a state-approved driver safety course are entitled to a discount on their auto insurance.

The rate cut varies by insurer, but by law, it applies for three years, as long as the driver maintains a clean record.

Chet Kowalski estimates that 70% of the people he deals with have that money-saving provision in mind when they come to him.

Kowalski is the zone coordinator in The Villages for AARP’s Smart Driver course. The program is geared toward senior citizens, and is one of 14 green-lighted by the state that makes drivers eligible for the insurance discount.

After being tabled since March 2020 because of the pandemic, the AARP classes restart in September in The Villages.

Kowalski said that as he and the instructors he coordinates prepare to resume classes, he hopes the community will realize more than money is at stake.

More Than a Refresher

As the program’s 129 page guidebook explains, the course can help participants “boost safety awareness, refresh and improve driving skills, minimize crash risk, increase confidence, prolong mobility and maintain independence.”

“Older drivers are generally safe,” said Kowalski, of the Village of Hemingway. “But older drivers have more than they need to be aware of.”

That may be especially important in Sumter County, where according to state records, 82% of licensed drivers are 50 or older, compared to just 48% statewide.

In the tri-county region, 46% of drivers in Lake and 57% in Marion fall into that demographic.

“Cars have changed, and so have traffic rules, driving conditions and the roads you travel every day. Even the most experienced drivers can benefit from brushing up on their driving skills,” said Jamie Champion Mongiovi, communications manager for AARP Florida.

Champion Mongiovi added that by taking the AARP Smart Driver course, drivers will learn the current rules of the road, defensive driving techniques and how to operate their vehicles more safely in today’s increasingly challenging driving environment.

Books, Videos and More

Kowalski, who is a retired law enforcement officer, said he took the course about a decade ago. He was so impressed that he volunteered to become an instructor.

The course runs for six hours. AARP offers a single-day version, but also breaks it down into three-hour blocks spread over two days. In The Villages, each class draws about 20 participants on average, Kowalski said.

Attendees are taught techniques to improve both their driving and safety. That includes the mechanics of driving, as well as tips on checking your vehicle and how pre-planning trips helps.

“It’s not just reading from the book,” Kowalski added.

Videos play a role, but so does class interaction with the teacher and other students.

Each class typically includes a few participants who believe they know all they need to know about driving after decades behind the wheel, he said.

“But once you get into the class, and when they start telling stories about what’s happened in their lives, it all comes together,” Kowalski said. “At the end, they’ll thank you for what we do, and that’s where our gratification comes in.”

Creating More Safety-Minded Drivers

The instruction can get touchy, however.

Much of the class, Kowalski said, concentrates on physical changes that affect older drivers specifically.

That includes discussion of things such as reduced acuity for vision and hearing. Yet it also delves into how driving is influenced by other factors such as decreased flexibility, diminished strength, declining cognitive abilities and the effects of medications.

Kowalski said one of the most sensitive topics is a discussion of “safe mobility” and when drivers should consider surrendering their keys for good.

But Kowalski believes the session is worthwhile, and he is a true believer in the mission to create more “safety-minded” drivers.

“It’s good because of the material,” Kowalski said. “It’s really helping the community. If you come and take the class, you’re going to leave with more than a few dollars in your pocket.”

Those interested in taking the AARP Smart Driver course may contact the instructors directly. The initial restarted classes are scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon as follows:

Jack Haughn will teach it from Sept. 14 through Sept. 17 at Laurel Manor Regional Recreation Complex. He is at 352-603-1420.

Art Donnelly will teach from Sept. 18 through Sept. 25 at Paradise Regional Recreation Complex. He is at 631-792-2203. 

And Paul Scannell will teach it at Rohan Regional Recreation Complex on Sept. 28 to 29. He’s at 352-399-6414. 

Staff writer Bill Thompson can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or william.thompson@thevillagesmedia.com.