Automakers Create a More Inviting — and Safer — Car for Seniors

It is generally known that the age groups most at risk for accidents on the road are teenagers and senior drivers. For seniors, since deteriorating skills and abilities are mostly to blame, changes are occurring in the automotive industry to help offset these losses.

This philosophy starts with giving seniors a better fit with the vehicles they already own, through programs such as CarFit. It also extends to automakers designing features that are more senior-friendly. The automotive aftermarket also has a contribution to make.

Here's a roundup of what's happening where senior rubber meets the road:

Improving Vehicle Compatibility

Compatibility between driver and vehicle is critical to driver performance. But many senior drivers, particularly widows, are piloting vehicles that weren't bought to suit their needs. "You see these little ladies driving their [late] husband's car, and it's too big for them," said Anne Dickerson, a geriatric specialist at East Carolina University.

Recognizing such difficulties and the potential benefits to older drivers in solving them, several health and senior-advocacy organizations launched CarFit, a program that offers free, 15-minute car "fittings" and information about the issue. Developed by the American Society on Aging (ASA) in collaboration with AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), CarFit's 12-point checklist ensures that senior drivers are comfortably and safely seated in relation to the vehicle's seatbelt, mirrors, steering wheel, headrest, pedals and other controls.

When it launched, a CarFit trial found that 37 percent of participating seniors had at least one critical safety issue addressed; in particular, 10 percent of them didn't have the right spacing between the steering wheel and their chest, and almost 20 percent didn't have the right line of sight over their vehicle's steering wheel and their chest, and almost 20 percent didn't have the right line of sight over their vehicle's steering wheel.

And while such campaigns also can help get the conversation started with an older person about when they'll stop driving, Dickerson said, it's important that aging motorists don't sense their privileges being threatened by such fittings. "Police are real interested in these programs," she added, "but you certainly don't want any cops in uniform there."

Toyota: Senior-Friendly Design

Automakers are working specifically on ways to make their vehicles more inviting to, and safer for, elderly drivers. Toyota/Lexus, for example, won a third of the spots on Edmunds.com's list of the Top 10 Vehicles for Seniors. One feature prominent in these models is what Toyota calls "360-degree handles." These handles allow doors to be opened from the outside using only major arm muscles — in contrast to "paddle handles" that require strength in the fingers and wrists, which often is compromised by arthritis and other conditions in elderly drivers.

Another example is the nifty technology offered in the flagship Lexus LS that allows the car to parallel-park itself. Such features can be especially appealing to older owners. "That self-parking system is the kind of design feature that's really helpful," said Elinor Ginzler, director for livable communities for the AARP.

Toyota is also rolling out brighter instrument displays in many vehicles, using what is called "vacuum fluorescent" technology instead of liquid crystal, the conventional but dimmer method. Designers have begun to incorporate larger-type fonts throughout vehicle interiors as well — including the clocks.

While most auto makers have migrated toward joysticks or other multi-input devices for manipulating navigation screens, Toyota and Lexus have traditionally stuck with touchscreens. "They're easier and much more intuitive for entering destinations," said Fred Lupton, manager of the human-factors group at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But the navigation system on the third generation Lexus RX might be the car to reverse that trend. The new RX uses a small joystick to control its navigation system inputs. This mouse-like joystick provides tactile feedback to the driver and helps them locate a function by sound and feel. The removal of the touchscreen has also given Toyota more design flexibility. Since the navigation screen no longer needs to be at arm's length, the screen has been moved closer to eye level. Lexus has also expanded its voice recognition system to allow for easier input, thus minimizing driver distraction.

Toyota's most specific design meant to aid seniors is what Lupton called an "assist plate" in the Camry. This sturdy palm rest, about the surface size and shape of a pack of playing cards, is positioned on the door side of the driver seat. "As an elderly person turns in the driver seat to get into and out of the vehicle, they can use this specific spot to push themselves up and out, or guide themselves in," he explained.

Ford Enters the Third Age

Meanwhile, Ford has been using a contraption it calls a Third Age Suit. It's essentially a big jumpsuit with enough extra material, straps and other contraptions to cramp vision and hearing and to severely limit the mobility of every joint and appendage, and it allows product developers to experience firsthand some of the limitations of aging.

"It's something that a 35-year-old engineer can wear and it does a good job of simulating for him what it would be like to be one of our customers who is 30 years older," says Eero Laanso, a human-factors engineer for Ford.

Ford has quietly been modifying some of its vehicles based in large part on insights from using the Third Age suit over the last few years. Senior-friendly enhancements are most prominent so far in the upcoming 2008 Taurus X, an overhaul of the mild-selling Freestyle SUV.

Strap-shaped exterior handles are one such feature, as are doors that open wider than in most other models. Ford claims that another plus is that the seats in the Taurus X are 3-4 inches higher than the segment average, easing entrance and exit and improving outward visibility.

And in what Laanso called the direct result of a "eureka moment" with the Third Age suit, the Taurus X features a wide-angle mirror that can be flipped down where a sunglasses holder typically resides. "It allows the driver to see and maintain eye contact with everyone in the second and third rows of the vehicle instead of having to turn his neck, which gets more difficult as you age," Laanso noted.

But both Toyota and Ford are careful not to market these as geezers' machines. "No one would buy it or want that kind of stigma on their vehicle," Lupton said.

Instead, Jonathan Richards, the marketing manager for the Ford Taurus, explains that "we target a broad demographic and then communicate these benefits universally. They're just appreciated differently by different people."

Inventing and Improving Accessories

More products are appearing that provide other forms of physical assistance for elderly or disabled drivers who lack dexterity. "We've got one system that allows the driver to rely solely on joysticks to perform all the necessary operations," said Debbie Lohman, a manager at one such outlet, GT Mobility & Services, in Green Bay, Wis. Other options include the ability to control secondary functions, like turn signals and wipers, with a touchscreen or voice control.

Something as simple as bigger-type fonts on maps can help seniors as well. Rand McNally has Easy-to-Read road maps with bigger print for states with large retiree populations. The Florida map is 72 percent larger than the previous version, and the new Arizona map is 62 percent larger.

"Every age group will benefit, but we think boomers in particular will, because they're the ones who are now saying they need reading glasses to look at a map," said David Hilgart, a marketing manager for the Skokie, Illinois-based company.

Below are links to all of the installments in this series.

What Should We Do About Grandma's Driving?
Aging Drivers: Intersections Are Danger Zones
How To Improve Seniors' Driving Skills
Better Cars, Equipment Assist Senior Drivers
When It's Time To Hang Up the Keys
Florida Paves the Way for Senior Drivers

Dale Buss is a journalist and author based near Detroit.