Best new-car features for senior drivers

By Jim Gorzelany
CTW Features

 Older motorists — especially those with declining abilities — should take advantage of new-vehicle options that can make taking to the wheel safer and more enjoyable Older motorists — especially those with declining abilities — should take advantage of new-vehicle options that can make taking to the wheel safer and more enjoyable With a swell of Baby Boomers entering their golden years there are now more senior citizens on the road than ever, with 84 percent of Americans age 65 and older licensed to drive, compared to barely half in the early 1970s. A recent report issued by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety also determined that 68 percent of motorists 85 or older continue to drive five or more days a week.

On the downside, a separate survey conducted by Liberty Mutual Insurance in Boston found that 78 percent of older drivers remain mobile despite declining physical abilities.

While automakers loathe to market their models specifically with an older demographic in mind (an industry maxim suggests an older person will buy a younger person’s car but not vice-versa), a plethora of features are available on a wide variety of today’s cars and trucks that can help keep them safer and more comfortable behind the wheel. For starters, not all car seats are created equal. The best are those that offer multi-position adjustments, with selectable seat height and lumbar support. Seat bottoms should come between the driver’s mid-thigh and lower buttocks for optimal comfort. Heated seats — even better the heated massaging seats offered on a few higher-end models — can help ease creaking joints or lower back pain while en route.

Drivers with arthritic hands, painful or stiff fingers or diminished fine motor skills should look for cars that come with a remote pushbutton entry/start feature that eliminates ever having to use a key. Likewise, a power remote-operated trunk or hatchback is effortless to use, and a few models now allow a driver to engage this feature by merely passing his or her foot under the rear bumper. Tilt and telescoping steering wheels and power adjustable brake/accelerator pedals help drivers of all sizes find an optimal “fit.”

Seniors with vision problems should look for vehicles with a digital speedometer readout that can be easier to spot and process at a glance than a conventional gauge. Some costlier cars offer a so-called head-up display that projects the vehicle’s speed and other pertinent information projected onto the inside of the windshield in a motorist’s line of sight to help keep eyes focused on the road ahead. Those driving at night can benefit from adaptive headlamps that pivot in conjunction with the car’s steering angle to more effectively light the way through curves; some can even automatically switch between high and low beams as needed (and to prevent blinding drivers in oncoming traffic).

Choosing a model that comes with parking proximity warnings and/or a rearview camera can help drivers with diminished upper body range of motion by minimizing twisting and upper body rotation. A few vehicles offer a self-parking feature that automatically steers the auto into a suitably sized parallel-parking space with the driver simply modulating the brake pedal and shifting gears.

Perhaps most importantly, several high-tech accident-avoidance safety features are available in virtually all model segments that can be especially valuable to drivers with diminished reaction times. Blind-spot warning systems alert a driver to the presence of other cars to the side and rear of the vehicle on the highway, and some do the same for cross traffic when backing out of a garage or parking space. Lane departure warning systems warn drivers if the vehicle is inadvertently veering into another line of traffic; a few systems use the brakes or steering to help “nudge” the vehicle back into the lane.

Forward collision-warning systems issue a visual and/or audible warning if the car is closing in on a vehicle or other obstruction in its path too quickly, with the best such systems being able to automatically apply the brakes if the driver isn’t responding quickly enough.

Volvo and Mazda offer low-speed auto-braking systems that are designed to work in city traffic and prevent both rear-end collisions and unfortunate encounters with pedestrians and bicyclists. And a few Nissan/ Infiniti models will automatically engage the brakes while the car is in reverse gear if sensors determine a pedestrian, vehicle or object is in the vehicle’s path.

© CTW Features