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‘Little old lady’ helps to keep others safe behind wheel

POSTED: March 27, 2011 1:30 a.m.

Laura Nagel steers the phrase "little old lady" into our conversation with a bit of pride in her voice. "I can use that term because I am one," she said recently.

But don’t think for one second that means Nagel, 61, hovers behind a giant sedan, turns the wheel too slow or idles in the center lane on Thompson Bridge Road.

"I like the wind in my hair as a driver," she said.

Her husband, Alan, is a natural foil as a conservative driver who yields to his wife and her sporty two-seat roadster.

"Every marriage works out their little kinks," she said, with a laugh. "Early on, he was more patient with my driving than I was with him. ... I like driving. He absolutely hates it. He’d rather slice out his own liver than drive in Atlanta."

Despite their differences on the road, the retired couple enrolled together in a defensive driving course several months ago. They gained far more than an insurance rebate. (Which will amount to more than $300 over a three-year period in their case, Laura Nagel reported.)

Expecting a standard recap of a driver’s ed course taken years ago, the Gainesville couple was surprised by today’s driving advice, Georgia’s latest motor vehicle laws and how new car technology matters in the discussion.

"We had a lot of fun. And we found ourselves in the following weeks bringing up little points of interest that didn’t really hit home until we had left the class and gone on with our lives," she said.

For instance, the traditional "10-and-2" hand positions with elbows up and over the wheel are no longer the best places to grip a steering wheel, Nagel said. Air bag technology makes "5-and-7" hand positions, with elbows low, a lot safer when accidents occur.

"That’s because your arms could break if your air bags go off," she explained.

Who knew?

Perhaps the most valuable parts of the class related to age. Advertisements in AARP magazine led the Nagels to enroll (to learn more, visit www.aarpdriversafety.org).

The family’s driver-in-chief was so intrigued with the knowledge she registered for more courses and now teaches AARP Driver Safety classes in Gainesville as a volunteer.

Her special focus is relating to seniors including the "little old ladies" like her as well as the stodgier drivers similar to Nagel’s beloved husband.

Facts and statistics are shared about what mature drivers do well. Discussion centers also on how driving changes when people begin to hear, see and react differently than they once did.

"It’s a huge subject, and it’s one that is often shuffled aside," Nagel said. "My personal objective is to reach as many drivers as possible, to get them thinking about the changes they are experiencing in their physical and mental lives and how to adjust their driving behavior."

Nagel admits many men and women seem more comfortable talking about embarrassing health procedures than surrendering car keys.

That has to change with baby boomers poised to retire en masse and potentially swamp the highways every day.

"Better that you look at yourself with honesty and examine your options. How are you going to get around? How are you going to deal with the day so that its not a traumatic, confrontational, demeaning time?" Nagel asked.

Her interest in this is education — and fun.

Nagel is a woman who started home-schooling her children on a hammock with a Charles Dickens’ novel.

"‘I don’t care if you listen, don’t care if you go to sleep, but I’m going to read a really neat story to you,’" she told them. "That was the beginning of one of the most beautiful experiences that person could ever have."

Nagel hopes to incorporate the same brand of fun-loving spirit into her driving classes.

Life’s next chapter is worth exploring, Nagel promised, even if you’re not at wheel with the wind in your hair.

"There are so many opportunities for exciting things that don’t necessarily cost a lot of money. They are all around us," Nagel said. "We just have to open our eyes."

Erin Rossiter is a reporter for The Times whose columns appear on Sunday’s Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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