Class Strives to Drive Elderly Into New Habits

Staff Writer

Helen Lane learned how to drive her father's Model T Ford when she was 14. She got her first driver's license at 17. But despite more than 60 years' experience behind the wheel, the 77-year-old Rosemead resident has signed up for a refresher course for mature drivers.

"I think we should all renew what we do," Lane said last week. "We get into ruts, whether it's driving or how you think or feel about something."

Lane also has a more practical reason for brushing up on her driving skills. If she completes the eight-hour course, offered to area residents by the Monterey Park Police Department beginning in January, Lane will be entitled to a discount on her auto insurance.

"I probably drive less than 1,000 miles a year, but that doesn't make much difference to the insurance companies," said Lane, who added that she has never been in an accident or gotten a ticket. The insurance payments on her pink 1959 Peugeot come to $554 a year--$47 more than her monthly Social Security check.

Insurance companies have said the discount could be between 5% to 10% of annual premiums. "This course represents $50 at least for me, and that's something," Lane said.

The city began planning for the course in July, when state legislation went into effect requiring insurance companies to offer a discount on automobile liability insurance to drivers over 55 who complete a driver improvement course approved by the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

"We just want to make them aware of things that can impair their (driving) ability and also give them a little bit of relief on their insurance," said Capt. Joseph A. Santoro of the Police Department.

Besides reviewing basic techniques, the course will tell older drivers how hearing and vision loss, fatigue and use of medications can affect driving performance and how they can compensate for those problems.

Monterey Park is so far the only city among the 35 civic groups and private driving schools in California authorized by the DMV to offer the course, and the only institution planning to offer it free.

Groups and schools are allowed to charge up to $20 a person for the course, which must meet DMV standards. But in Monterey Park, where the course will be taught by police officers and trained volunteers, the only cost to students will be a $1 fee for a graduation certificate.

Monterey Park offered a similar program three years ago, and city officials said traffic officers already spend part of their time teaching safety courses.

Beth Ryan, coordinator of the Langley Senior Citizen Center, is enthusiastic about the Monterey Park program.

"If seniors are going to save only 5% and they have to pay $20 to go to a school, what have they gained?" she said. "That's why this is really wonderful."

To make the course more accessible, it will be taught in a variety of languages. The city has developed training materials in Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish and English and is planning to add Vietnamese and Japanese classes if the need arises.

Tak Kai, 71, of Monterey Park has volunteered to teach a class in Japanese after he completes the course himself. Kai and his wife own two cars--a 1972 Toyota and a 1977 Nissan--and pay $1,200 a year for insurance, equal to their monthly income from pensions and Social Security checks.

"To get this kind of a reduction will be a real godsend," Kai said. "If worse comes to worst, I'm willing to give up one car, but my wife says 'No.' She wants to keep her car."

Lane said her only complaint is the size of the insurance saving.

"If it were 25%, that would really mean something," she said.

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