Safer Cars for Older Drivers

Copyright © 2014 AARP. All rights reserved.

You can't make an aging body young again, but you can fix a car to accommodate physical and cognitive changes created by aging. The car your parent or other relative drives may benefit from a checkup.

The mirrors may not be adjusted properly, obstructing rear and side vision. Reaching the gas and brake pedals may be difficult, and operating them may cause muscle strain and reduce reaction time. The driver's seat may be too close to the wheel.

CarFit, an educational program developed by the American Automobile Association, AARP, and the American Occupational Therapy Association, can help educate drivers to become safe and comfortable in their cars. CarFit organizes community events at which technicians and volunteers discuss safe settings to make the car fit the driver. The service takes approximately 20 minutes.

Take the opportunity to have your own car checked out. It may reveal some problems you were not aware of and may also make the experience more acceptable to your parent. Some adjustments, such as pedal extensions or other adaptive equipment, may require technical assistance.

Technology can help make a car (and its driver and occupants) safer. Seatbelts, air bags, and anti-lock brakes are common now, as are GPS systems that give directions and alerts about approaching exits and turns. But there's more.

The Hartford and the MIT AgeLab, which has been a leader in driver safety for older people, convened a group of experts to review the past decade of research and innovations in driver safety. Following are the top ten technologies they recommend:

  • Smart headlights: Adjust the range and intensity of light based on how far away the traffic is and reduce glare

  • Emergency-response system: Offers quick assistance in case of a medical emergency or collision

  • Reverse monitoring system: Warns drivers of objects to the rear of the vehicle to help drivers judge distances and back up safely

  • Blind-spot warning system: Alerts you to oncoming traffic by a flashing light in your side view mirror and a beep or steering wheel vibration

  • Lane-departure warning: Helps drivers avoid wandering into another lane

  • Vehicle-stability control system: Helps keep the car in the intended line of travel, especially when the driver underestimates the angle of a curve or encounters severe weather

  • Assistive parking system: Enables vehicles to park on their own or indicates distances to objects, making parking easier and reducing stress

  • Voice-activated system: Allows drivers to access features by voice command so that they can keep their eyes focused on the road

  • Crash-mitigation system: Detects when the car may be in danger of a collision

  • Drowsy driver alerts: Monitor the degree to which a driver may be inattentive and alert them to pay attention

Some of these devices may be standard in a new car (probably an expensive model) or could be installed by a car dealer. Generally, each manufacturer prices these technologies as part of an equipment package.

For example, smart headlights might be part of an “all-weather” package because of their capacity to compensate for poor weather conditions as well as bends in the road. Such a package can range from $500 to $2,000 or more.

The more advanced systems are usually available first on the more expensive cars such as Lincoln and Lexus. Manufacturers are unlikely to market these devices as appropriate for older adults because they want to appeal to a younger, hipper market.

Consumers have to know about them and ask for them to be included. If your parent objects that these adjustments are for “old people,” point out that they are future-oriented and sophisticated, not stodgy at all.

Systems such as OnStar for General Motors vehicles are helpful in emergencies; they call for help, giving your location. Other systems are available for different manufacturers. They are paid for on a subscription bases.

It is also essential to make sure that regular maintenance on the car is performed. If you don't think it's being done, work with your parent to set up a schedule with a mechanic you trust to go over the car at regular intervals, even if it's not being driven a lot.

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