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Devices can keep older drivers on road

By Joshua Nichols, Staff writer
Published On: May 19 2011 10:33:25 AM CDT
Updated On: Oct 09 2013 04:32:21 PM CDT
Senior driver, car, steering wheel

iStockPhoto / Mr_Khan

Even the most experienced drivers can use a little help.

There are 38 million licensed drivers over age 65 in the U.S., a number that will probably grow to represent one-quarter of all drivers by 2024, according to AAA. That group of senior drivers faces physical and cognitive limitations that can impede their ability to drive safely.

However, the vehicles they choose to drive can go a long way toward making it easier for them to hit the road.

"There are ways to counteract the difficulties brought on by age-related changes so that seniors can maintain their safe driving abilities," said Dennis McCarthy, co-director of the National Older Driver Research and Training Center. "One of these is through proper use of particular vehicle features."

The center worked with AAA to produce "Smart Features for Mature Drivers," a brochure highlighting those features.

"The goal of 'Smart Features for Mature Drivers' is to ensure that mature drivers are comfortable in their vehicles and to keep them driving safely as long as possible," said Desiree Lanford, a driving rehabilitation specialist at the University of Florida, home of the center.

Arthritis

Nearly half of people ages 65 and older are affected by arthritis. When arthritis affects a person's hands, painful or stiff fingers can make simple driving tasks like buckling a seat belt, turning a key, adjusting seats and mirrors, and steering more difficult.

Those drivers can benefit from such features as thick steering wheels, which are easier to grip and handle, and keyless entry and ignitions that eliminate twisting and turning motions. Power mirrors and seats require less strength and range of motion to adjust.

The experts also recommend four-door models as opposed to two-door ones, which have longer, heavier doors that can be harder to open and close.

Limited mobility

Since general mobility can decline as people age, it's important to avoid vehicles that can make driving uncomfortable. Most often, getting in and out of the car or using the foot pedals is difficult.

Look for vehicles that have low door thresholds, six-way adjustable power seats and seat heights that come up to your mid-thigh level when standing.

"As we get older, our lower body strength starts to decline," said John Nielsen, AAA national director of auto repair and buying services. "Maybe we get arthritis in our knees or hips, and the ability to climb into a car and slide out becomes very important."

With higher seats, it's easier to climb into the vehicle and slide out as opposed to falling into the seat and having to lift yourself out, he said.

Range of motion

By the time we reach 60, our range of motion can decrease by up to 25 percent. That loss of flexibility can make it harder to turn to check blind spots, merge or back up. It can also make reaching for and buckling a seatbelt difficult.

Drivers suffering from limited upper body range of motion can benefit from large, wide-angle mirrors that minimize blind spots, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel that allows for more comfortable seating positions and heated seats with lumbar support.

Eyesight

The most common vision problems experienced by older drivers include cataracts, macular degeneration and glaucoma. While vehicle features cannot necessarily overcome the affects of these diseases, drivers can benefit from a few features that they may overlook when shopping for a new car.

Such drivers will find extendable sun visors helpful in preventing glare, along with larger audio and climate controls with contrasting text, which are easier to see.

Short drivers

As we age, many of us tend to shrink a few inches due to osteoporosis. That loss of height can prove troublesome for senior drivers, as looking over the steering wheel or reaching the pedals can become more difficult.

It's especially a problem if people are forced to sit too close to the steering wheel -- and the airbag mounted inside it. Along with adjustable seats and tilting and a telescoping steering wheel, another feature that can help is adjustable foot pedals.

Other tips

The guide also recommends that all seniors, regardless of their health issues, look for vehicles with solid safety features and a proven safety record. Crash test and rollover ratings are available at Safecar.gov and IIHS.org.

Other safety features to look for include antilock brakes, head restraints to reduce the risk of neck injuries, dynamic stability control to help prevent loss of control in a turn, and side and dual-stage or dual-threshold air bags that inflate based on the severity of the crash.

However, AAA and NODTRC also stress that there is no one-size-fits-all standard when it comes to seniors and the cars they drive.

"As we age, each of us ages differently, so the vehicle that works best for us is going to be different for each," Nielsen said. "Each driver should find the car that suits them absolutely the best."

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