Driver's Seat
Mar/Apr 2008 Issue
Car features can keep seniors and other drivers safe, comfortable behind the wheel

An example of moderate step-in height for easy entrance and exit is seen in the 2008 Honda Element.
Sixty may be the new 50 as baby boomers want to believe. It’s true that people age differently. But sooner or later, time plays its tricks on our bodies, affecting not only appearance, but also the ability to perform complex tasks such as driving.

By age 40, the thought process slows and it becomes more difficult to juggle several tasks at once. Also, night vision declines. After age 50, reaction times–our ability to see something, recognize it and take action–can slow.

By age 60, muscle strength and range of motion decrease by as much as 25 percent, making it more difficult to turn the head. And by age 70, many are afflicted with arthritic joints.

The number of Americans age 55 to 74 are projected to nearly double by 2030, so automakers are paying keen attention to the needs of older car buyers. “Age doesn’t necessitate a particular car,” says John Nielson, AAA director of Automotive Repair, Buying Services and Consumer Information. “But buying a car with certain senior-friendly features can help all people continue to enjoy the independence that driving brings.”

To assist older drivers in selecting their next vehicle, AAA and the National Older Driver Research and Training Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville identified some 30 features on newer cars that can be helpful to aging drivers. Among them:
  • Active head restraints: This type of restraint moves forward to cushion the head if the car is hit from behind, helping reduce neck injuries.
  • Adjustable pedals: With a push of a button, the driver can adjust the accelerator and brake pedals, a feature helpful for petite drivers to reach the pedals while ensuring they are a safe distance (about 12 inches) from the air bag mounted in the steering-wheel hub.
  • Power-operated seats: These require less strength to adjust.
  • Large knobs and buttons: Audio and climate controls with large features are easier to see and less distracting.
  • Large/wide-angle mirrors: For those who have difficulty turning to look back when changing lanes or backing up.
  • Moderate step-in height: Low-slung sports cars and tall SUVs require extra effort and flexibility to enter and exit.
  • Keyless entry: Operated by a push-button on the key fob, this feature is good for those with arthritic hands.
  • Keyless ignition: Utilizing a dash-mounted push-button instead of a key, keyless ignition is beneficial to those with stiff fingers.
  • Tilt/telescoping steering wheel: The extra adjustments help the driver find a safe distance from the front airbag, as well as a comfortable position that alleviates knee, back, hip or neck pain.
  • Brake assist: Like the term implies, it helps the driver generate enough force during emergency braking to stop the car to prevent a collision.
  • Anti-lock brakes: ABS prevents the wheels from locking during hard braking, helping the driver retain steering control and eliminating the need to “pump” the brakes.
  • Dual-stage/dual-threshold airbags: The airbag inflation force varies based on weight, distance from airbags and crash severity–important for frail adults.

When it comes to selecting a new car, knowing the features available to assist with physical limitations–for any age–can make for a more enjoyable and safer ride.

“A car should fit you like shoes or clothes. It should be comfortable enough that you can ‘wear’ it for extended periods of time,” said Desiree Lanford, occupational therapist/certified driving rehabilitation specialist at the University of Florida and evaluator in AAA’s senior project.

For more senior driver safety information, visit online at and click on the news and safety section.

Seniors check driving skills with CD

Just as you would screen for high cholesterol or high blood pressure, seniors can measure their driving “health” with a AAA program called “Roadwise Review: A Tool to Help Seniors Drive Safely Longer.”

The CD-ROM program measures eight physical and mental abilities shown to be the strongest predictors of crash risk among older drivers, including leg strength and general mobility, head and neck flexibility, and visual searching ability. The program is compatible with most PCs running Windows XP, 2000, ME or 98 running 633 MHz or faster.

Seniors can use the program in the privacy of their own homes, and the results are revealed only to them. If users find they are weak in an area, the program provides information about what steps should be taken, such as visiting an occupational therapist to learn exercises that could improve neck flexibility.

The program sells for just $5. To purchase a copy, call 1-800-222-7623 ext. 6300, or visit online. The program also is available through AAA’s free-loan video library by calling 1-800-222-7623 ext. 6312.

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