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Thelma Edmisten, 91, has been behind the wheel since she was about 25. She renewed her driver’s license in April for another five years.

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Originally published: 2014-05-24 15:36:05
Last modified: 2014-05-24 15:38:05

More seniors are driving ... and accident rates are lower

by Sherrie Norris

Thelma Edmisten of Boone is among the about 3 million drivers in North Carolina who are 50 years or older -- and she also represents about half of that group who are 60 or older.

Behind the wheel since she was about 25,  Edmisten, now a youthful 91, said she renewed her driver's license in April and has no plans to turn the keys over to anyone else in the foreseeable future. She enjoys her independence and has no qualms about driving herself wherever she needs to go, including to Winston-Salem frequently to visit her daughter. Until a few years ago, Edmisten made annual solo trips to Florida and back to Boone.

"I'm in good health and I don't see any reason to stop driving," she said. "I've got my license for at least another five years. I passed all the tests without any trouble. I've got good vision and good health, so why shouldn't I drive?"

According to Edmisten, a number doesn't define one's age.

"I don't think most people realize I'm as old as I am because I'm real active and I stay busy. I think that's what keeps a person young," she said.

She drives to the Lois E. Harrill Senior Center in Boone two or three times a week, she said, and she might attend the upcoming safe driving class on Thursday, sponsored by AARP  -- if she's not too busy.  

"I did one of those classes in Florida 10 years ago to get a discount on my insurance," she added.

 Into her ninth decade, Edmisten is still active.

Edmisten said she had "just laid off two rows in my little garden for beans" band was "working up rhubarb," with her flower gardens next in line for her attention.

In her free time, she said she was trying to finish a quilt.

Until her riding lawn mower stopped working last year, she maintained her large yard.

"I decided I didn't need to buy a new mower, so I started hiring someone to do it for me," she said.

According to Steven Hahn, associate state director of AARP North Carolina, recent reports by AARP found that more seniors are now on the road, and at the same time, accident rates for older drivers are improving. Hahn believes those statistics are due, in part, to refresher courses such as AARP's Smart Driver and the upcoming safety course scheduled for Thursday.

One report found that 84 percent of Americans 65 and older were licensed to drive in 2010, compared to barely half that number in the early 1970s. The study also found that one in six drivers on American roadways is 65 and older, Hahn said.

As Edmisten shows, senior citizens today are also living longer than ever while remaining actively involved in their communities.

In 2012, more than 2,500 senior drivers across North Carolina participated in 250 classes taught by 85 driver safety volunteers.

Data provided by AARP NC indicated that 99 percent of those class participants reported changing at least one driving habit as a result of taking a class and that "the biggest lure for seniors taking the class" is the real possibility of staying independent and accident free for the remainder of their lives.  

The AARP Driving Class is a great incentive for many of her clients, Jennifer Teague, director of the Lois E. Harrill Senior Center, said.

Not only does it serve as a refresher course for older drivers, but it also keeps them up-to-date on current traffic laws, she said.

 Like others who work daily with the senior population, Teague understands their need for independence and is delighted that the senior center is able to host such events as the upcoming safe driving class.

When driving is no longer an option locally, Teague said, transportation to and from the senior center is offered through AppalCART, as well as to places around town for doctor's visits, shopping and other errands.

But for seniors still driving, there are several reasons why senior drivers should take the driver safety course, Hahn said. Driving has changed since they first got their license, and doing so could save them money."

Even the most experienced drivers can benefit from brushing up on their driving skills, he said.

A driver safety course will remind seniors of current rules of the road, defensive driving techniques and how to operate their vehicles more safely in today's increasingly challenging driving environment.

They will also learn how to manage and adjust to common age-related changes in vision, hearing and reaction time.

Other things to learn through the course include:

- How to minimize the effects of dangerous blind spots.
- How to maintain the proper following distance behind another car.
- The safest ways to change lanes and make turns at busy intersections.
- Proper use of safety belts, air bags, antilock brakes and new technologies used in cars.
- Ways to monitor your own and other's driving skills and capabilities.
- The effects of medications on driving.
- The importance of eliminating distractions, such as eating, smoking and cell phone use.

After completing the course, participants will have a greater appreciation of driving challenges and a better understanding of how to avoid potential collisions and injuries to themselves and others, Teague said.

Founded in 1979, AARP Driver Safety has helped millions of drivers stay safe on the roads. Although the course is geared to drivers age 50 and older, the course is open to all ages.