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Car Technology That Helps Older Drivers

Active Safety and Convenience Features for Staying Mobile

It's called the "silver tsunami": a huge wave of aging baby boomers that will build to its peak as that demographic enters its geriatric years. The 70-plus crowd is projected to increase from 30.1 million in 2013 to 53.7 million by 2030, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), citing U.S. Census Bureau data.

This means there will be more aging drivers on U.S. roads in the coming years, continuing a trend that's been building for more than a decade. The IIHS estimated that the number of licensed drivers 70 years old and older jumped 30 percent between 1997 and 2012. Older drivers have also been traveling more miles. From 1996-2008, average yearly mileage for drivers 70 and older rose by 42 percent.

The IIHS notes that fewer people in their 70s are licensed to drive than are drivers between ages 20 and 69. And motorists in their 70s also log fewer miles than younger ones. But boomers are nevertheless keeping their licenses longer than previous generations and make up a bigger proportion of the driving population than in past years.

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Help for Boomers Behind the Wheel
From music to medical care, baby boomers have exerted enormous influence on society and they will likely rewrite the rules of what it means to age and drive, too. But boomer drivers can't escape the toll that aging can take. AAA points out that nearly 90 percent of motorists age 65 and older suffer from health issues that may affect driver safety.

At the same time, however, mobility is important to mental health. For many aging people, driving is synonymous with independence.

"Helping seniors remain mobile with new technologies and a good car fit is important for quality of life," says AAA spokesman Michael Green. "Older Americans who have stopped driving are almost two times more likely to suffer from depression and nearly five times as likely to enter a long-term care facility compared to those who remain behind the wheel."

Fortunately, the technology that makes cars safer for everyone is arriving just in time to be particularly useful for aging motorists. Groups such as AAA and AARP offer resources that can help older drivers understand new technology and pick a vehicle that's best suited to their age and abilities.

"Older drivers should consider choosing vehicles that best meet their needs in order to improve safety and comfort behind the wheel," adds Green.

Active Safety to the Rescue
AAA breaks down the vehicle features that can help older drivers into three categories: safety, ergonomics and comfort. Safety is arguably the area that's had the most advances in technology that can keep senior drivers secure.

Active safety systems or "driver assists" use cameras and sensors to warn a driver of impending danger. The systems can even take action, such as steering the car or applying the brakes, to avoid a collision. Some driver assists still are found on high-end vehicles, but others have trickled down to less expensive cars. Lane-departure warning technology can sense when a driver has inadvertently drifted out of a lane and flash a visual alert and sound an alarm. Lane-departure intervention (also called lane-keeping assist) goes a step further, automatically steering a car back into its lane when a driver doesn't heed the warning. The systems can be found, for example, in the current Chevrolet Volt, Ford Fusion and Honda Accord.

Here are some other safety features that AARP recommends:

  • 360-degree camera systems, which give a "bird's-eye" view all around a vehicle while parking. The system is available on the current Acura RLX, for example.

  • Adaptive headlights, which swivel in the direction the steering wheel is turned. They are currently available in many cars, including the BMW 3 Series, Hyundai Equus, Mazda 3 and Volvo S60. These help illuminate the road ahead while going around turns.

  • Automatic crash notifications, which are typically part of a telematics system, such as OnStar for Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC, 911 Assist for Ford vehicles with the Sync system, Blue Link for Hyundai vehicles and Safety Connect for Toyotas. Telematics systems can provide additional benefits as well. If a senior driver gets lost, disoriented or has an emergency while on the road, a single button push can link the driver to a live person who can help. Services range from alerting family or emergency services to sending directions to a vehicle for a desired destination.

  • Automatic high beams, which automatically switch between high and low beam headlights for better nighttime visibility. They are available, for example, on the current Toyota Avalon and Volvo vehicles.

  • Blind spot warning technology, which signals that a car in the adjoining lane is in the driver's blind spot, is available as an option or standard feature in more than half of new vehicles in 2015, including some versions of the Mazda 3. Blind spot assist, which automatically takes corrective action to avoid a blind spot collision, can be found on many Mercedes-Benz models.

  • Emergency autonomous braking (EAB) is a technology that 10 automakers recently committed to add to all new passenger vehicles in the U.S. "as soon as possible," according to the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration (NHTSA). EAB can help a car stop or slow down to mitigate damage if it determines that a frontal collision is imminent.

    "Automatic emergency braking is a core safety system that no one should be ignoring," says Bryan Reimer, of MIT's AgeLab. "In the case of older adults, where physical fragility becomes an increasing issue with age, the crash-reduction potential of AEB can be the difference between life and death."

    Automatic emergency braking can be found in a wide variety of cars, typically as an option on more expensive trim levels. Some current examples are the Buick Encore, Chevrolet Volt, Chrysler 200, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda 6, Subaru WRX, Toyota Camry and Volvo S60. Vehicles that earn the IIHS Top Safety Pick + designation also have these systems.

  • Drowsy-driver or attention alert systems, which can detect the onset of drowsiness and prompt the driver to stop for rest, are available on the Nissan Murano, Volvo S60 and many Mercedes-Benz vehicles, for example.

  • Rearview cameras, which will be required in all new cars by May 2018. The cameras are now present in more than half of available vehicle models for the current model year.

"It is clear that as mobility impairments increase with age, assistive technologies like blind spot alerts, automated parking technologies and the like can increase awareness of one's surroundings and lower stress associated with everyday activities," Reimer says.

Features for Comfort and Convenience
Ergonomics and comfort, the two other categories of importance for senior drivers, may seem like conveniences to younger drivers but they can actually help older people remain safe behind the wheel. Ergonomic features such as adjustable steering wheels, adjustable pedals and multiposition heated and cooled power seats with memory can help reduce fatigue and discomfort.

Aging drivers should also consider such convenience features as keyless entry and keyless ignition so that they don't have to fumble with physical car keys. Some vehicles, such as the current Nissan Maxima, allow drivers to customize the instrument panel and center display to show information that's most important to them, avoiding distracting visual clutter. Conveniences such as motorized trunk lids and liftgates that shut at the touch of a button (or even when a driver simply gets close to the car) can also take some of the hassle out of everyday vehicle operation for older people.

Resources for Older Drivers
As the pace of car technology picks up, AARP's Driver Safety Division wants to be sure older motorists know what's available, says Kyle Rakow, vice president and national director of the division.

"It's important to be aware and knowledgeable of your vehicle's features, as many of them make driving safer and easier," he says. "That's why in the latest edition of our Smart Driver course curriculum for people 50 and older we made it a point of emphasis and dedicated a section to changing vehicles and technologies."

AARP provides a Driving Resource Center that features an interactive demonstration of the top 10 technologies for mature drivers, while AAA's Senior Driving Web site has a Smart Features for Older Drivers tool that lets seniors input their specific needs to find a car that works best for them.

Given the immense size of the baby boom generation, chances are that you or someone in your family will be driving well into their senior years. With the technology now available on a wide variety of vehicles, older drivers can be more confident and comfortable on the road. And everyone can feel a bit safer.