Written by:  Carrie Fellon, CFP®, CRPS

As a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional, I continually seek ways to save money.

Three years ago, an ad in my local AAA magazine claiming potential savings on my auto insurance premium caught my eye. Reading further, I learned that, as a driver over the age of 55, proof of successful completion of a defensive driving course would reduce my premium.

My husband, Mark, and I enrolled in the AAA RoadWise Driver™ live 8-hour course. By attending at our local club, the nominal fee would be waived. Our class was to be held in 4-hour increments over two successive October Saturdays. The curriculum is approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. While the class is open to a licensed driver of any age, the insurance premium discount of 5% is only available to drivers 55 and older.

Upon arrival at our first session, Santa Claus greeted us. Our instructor with the snowy beard – self-dubbed Santa Ed – fills his retirement days working as a professional Santa Claus when not teaching driver safety courses.

Our classmates ranged in age from their 50s to their 80s. Some members of our group obtained their first driver’s licenses as early as the 1940s and others as recently as the 1980s. And, as you might expect, much has changed in vehicles, roadways, laws and driving techniques since we began driving:

  • New York was the first state in 1984 to pass a law requiring vehicle occupants to wear seat belts. New Hampshire is the only state that does not require adults to wear seat belts.
  • Introduced in the mid-1970s, most vehicles began featuring airbags around 1990.
  • Road congestion is increasing due to more drivers.
  • Circular intersections known as roundabouts are gradually replacing conventional intersections.
  • Entertainment and safety technologies continue to be built into cars.
  • President Nixon’s national speed limit of 55 MPH has been abolished. Some states allow a speed as high as 85 MPH.

When Mark and I started driving, we were taught to keep one car length between our vehicle and the one ahead of us per every 10 MPH. The length of most cars at that time measured 18 feet. Automobile downsizing began as a direct response to the 1973 oil crisis. Today’s average sedan measures 15.5 feet. The average SUV measures 16 feet, while a Smart car barely measures 9 feet. Thus, the new guideline is to keep an eye on the car in front of you and spot a fixed object that’s even with that car. Count how long it takes for your vehicle to reach that fixed object. Anything less than three seconds means you need to allow more following distance behind the car in front of you.

The recommended hand position on the steering wheel is no longer at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions. In the event of a crash, the force of airbag deployment can cause your hands to fly into your face or cause other injuries.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the new rule is to place your hands at 9 and 3 o’clock or at 8 and 4 o’clock.

Other topics covered in our course:

  • The effects of medication and alcohol on driving
  • Techniques to reduce driver distractions
  • Proper use of safety belts and anti-lock brakes
  • Placement of mirrors to reduce the size of blind spots
  • Techniques for handling left turns, right-of-way, and roundabouts

If you’re interested in taking a defensive driver course, you can enroll in live or online classes through AAA, AARP, or an accredited driving school whose curriculum is approved by your state of residence. Be sure to consult your insurance agent to learn what discount you may receive upon successful completion of your course. Your financial strategist can also help you choose a class that’s right for you. Bear in mind that you will likely need to take a refresher course to continue enjoyment of your discounted premium.

In order to preserve our insurance discount, Mark and I completed our 4-hour refresher course several weeks ago. We recognized familiar faces from our class of 2016, including that of Santa Claus!