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''Smart'' Car Features Can Help Older Drivers Stay Safe

New Car Ratings for Senior Drivers Could Also Be on the Way

If you think you're seeing a lot of older drivers on the road now, just wait.

In 2010, 34 million U.S. drivers were age 65 or older. But by 2020, their ranks are predicted to swell to 40 million, according to estimates from the American Automobile Association (AAA).

While many of these mature drivers are very healthy and fit, only a lucky few have escaped completely the toll that birthdays take. According to a 2012 AAA survey, nearly nine of 10 older drivers reported a health-related concern that can affect driving safety and comfort. These included diminished vision and issues with pain, balance and range of motion.

However, that same survey found that just one in 10 of older adults with health issues bought a vehicle with so-called ''smart'' features such as multi-adjustable seats that can help drivers get comfortable, and special high-contrast instrument panels designed to be easier to read by those whose vision isn't as sharp as it once was.

Now the push is on to reach out to older drivers, alerting them not only to these ''smart'' features, but also to programs that can help assess their on-road fitness and help guide them to the right vehicle choices.

Decisions about how old is too old to drive should not center on birthdays, says Sharon Gilmartin, a behavioral scientist at AAA. "Driving is a function of ability, not age.''

Elin Schold Davis, coordinator of the older driver initiative for the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), says this of older drivers: "We need to keep them on the road as long as we can, but safely."

There are several new or continuing programs designed to help do that. AAA has just updated its review of ''smart'' features for older drivers, now including more than 200 2013 model year vehicles in an online, interactive review tool that's fun to use.

Edmunds.com has a list of the Top 10 Vehicles for Seniors for 2014, with an eye to features that make driver better for older motorists. The AOTA is continuing with its Car Fit program, which was launched by the AOTA and other organizations and helps evaluate how well a car fits an older driver, and assists the owner in making necessary adjustments.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is considering the development of a "silver" ratings program to better help older drivers choose vehicles.

Smart Features, Older Drivers
Using the AAA's Smart Features for Older Drivers tool, people who are shopping for a new vehicle can match up any health-related conditions with a helpful ''smart'' car feature, then find the vehicles that offer it.

For instance, those who have knee issues may be more comfortable with six-way-adjustable seats. Drivers with stiff fingers and arthritic hands can look for cars that offer keyless ignition and entry. If fine motor skills have declined, a thick steering wheel can decrease the pain linked with twisting and turning during driving. Those with declining vision can look for vehicles with contrasting text displays, known to reduce bothersome glare.

The resource began in 2008, but this latest version of the tool is more comprehensive, and includes more vehicles, Gilmartin says.

Users can identify their health issue and then shop around for the appropriate car. For instance, if you are short or carrying a few extra pounds around the middle, the tool will suggest looking at cars with adjustable foot pedals, tilt steering wheels and six-way-adjustable seats. The tool displays specific vehicles with those features, complete with fuel economy and the manufacturer's suggested retail price for the car.

"Because there is no one typical older driver, there is not one perfect car," says Gilmartin. That is why AAA encourages drivers to explore vehicles based on their needs and the features that will accommodate those needs, she says.

"All of the different manufacturers have at least some, if not a good deal of the features," she says.

However, no matter how great the ''smart'' features, Gilmartin warns that they can only enhance safety, not make up for deficient driving skills.

Car Fit Offerings
Older drivers who aren't in the market for a new car may want to take advantage of the Car Fit program, created by the American Society on Aging and developed in collaboration with the AAA, AARP and AOTA.

The site has a clickable map to help you find a free program in your area. The program takes about 20 minutes and is hosted by various community groups interested in safety for older drivers, Schold Davis says. Trained technicians or health professionals conduct the programs, paying attention to safety and comfort factors, such as how well the mirrors are adjusted and whether the driver is a safe distance — 10 inches or more — from the steering wheel.

More comprehensive evaluations can also be done, says Schold Davis. For instance, AOTA members — occupational therapists who are specially trained in how to assess driving, modify vehicles and improve driving skills — can do a comprehensive, on-the-road evaluation and make recommendations on next steps.

"A comprehensive driving evaluation takes about three hours," she says.

The AOTA site has more information on a comprehensive driving evaluation. The fee for evaluation varies, and is generally $200-$400, Schold Davis says. The cost range is due to the individualized nature of the evaluation. It's tailored to the driver and the driver's needs and issues.

The key question during the evaluation, she says, is this: "Are there ways to compensate?" The specialists view the impairments not as problems due to age, she says, but as the consequence of a medical issue.

Some remedies aren't expensive. Schold Davis remembers one case in which an older driver was using a cushion to boost herself for better visibility, not realizing her car seat was adjustable and could do the job better.

In other cases, the specialists suggest simple strategies, such as advising drivers with chronic fatigue to note when they are most tired during a typical day and then plan their driving trips during their more energetic times.

The comprehensive evaluations ''can be a very useful tool for older drivers to think about," says Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist and executive director of the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence.

Hartford's auto insurance policy may cover the cost of a comprehensive evaluation if a driver (regardless of age) is in an accident and injured, says spokesperson Michelle Loxton. The evaluation isn't required to retain coverage, she says, and Hartford does not get the results. The driver must use a licensed occupational therapist who was referred by a physician. Not every state offers this coverage, Loxton says.

Are Silver Ratings Coming?
NHTSA has announced a new, five-year plan to help ensure the safety of older drivers. Besides continuing to research such technologies as crash avoidance systems and other features of interest to older drivers (and drivers in general), NHTSA is looking at data about crashes and investigating whether certain changes in drivers, including physical, cognitive and perceptual changes, affect their behavior and safety.

The agency is also looking at the possibility of upgrading its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) by including a ''silver'' rating system for older drivers to guide them to safety features of particular interest.

The agency requested comments on the idea in April 2013 and is reviewing those comments. It has not yet made any decisions on moving forward with such a rating system, an agency spokesperson says.

Meanwhile, NHTSA's advice for older drivers is to refer to the existing rating system.

NHTSA also encourages consumers to consider cars that have crash avoidance technologies. With the 2011 model year, NHTSA began identifying those vehicles that have lane departure warning (LDW), forward collision warning (FCW) and electronic stability control (ESC). Since the 2012 model year, ESC has been required for passenger vehicles. More information on these technologies can be found at NHTSA's Safercar.gov Web site.

Some experts say that if the silver ratings program does go into effect, it may need a new name that smacks less of aging and the ''silver years.'' After all, this generation of older drivers is largely healthier than past generations and very eager to stay on the road.

As Schold Davis puts it: "Who wants to buy a 'senior' car?" The emphasis should always be on safety, not age, she says.

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