By 2020, there will be 40 million licensed drivers 65 or older, according to estimates from the American Automobile Association. That’s an increase of 11 million in just one decade. As our bodies change with age, everything is affected, including reaction time when we’re behind the wheel, where one saved second can translate into avoiding serious injury or even death.
Last year, 62.3 percent of new-car purchases were made by people at least 50 years old, according to a recent study. Putting these trends together, the auto industry is spending millions of rsearch and development dollars on safety technology that can save the lives of people of any age.
Even if you don’t have problems with vision, mobility or concentration now, when buying (or leasing) a new car, it’s important to anticipate needs that could develop for you or anyone else driving the vehicle over the coming years or decade.
Here are some of the latest advances in car technology that will make your driving safer and more comfortable — and maybe keep you in the driver's seat a bit longer.
Keep Your Eyes on the Road (Your Hands Upon the Wheel)
You may feel competent multitasking when driving, but it is dangerous. A helpful option is a voice-activated dashboard system, available on most new vehicles, which lets you speak your request for navigational guidance, hands-free calling or even the location of the nearest gas station. The MyFord Sync system, in all Fords and Lincolns, also lets you verbally control audio and temperature.
For a more complete view around you, rearview cameras that activate a dashboard navigation system when you shift into reverse can help you park, spot an obstacle (or child) that's near your rear bumper yet out of sight. First introduced a decade ago in certain high-end models, this aid has proved so popular with new car buyers that many manufacturers now include it as standard equipment.
More than 90 percent of Honda’s 2013 lineup offers these devices, including all the CR-Z, Accord and Crosstour models. Beginning with 2012 models, Infiniti started offering a 360-degree-view monitor, which stitches together images by an onboard computer from tiny cameras on all four corners of the car.
Help for Limited Mobility
According to the AAA, our body’s range of motion can decrease by as much as 25 percent by age 60. That affects how easily and how far we can turn around in the driver's seat to check blind spots.
The auto manufacturers have come to the rescue with so-called blind spot monitors, which use radar sensors on both sides of the car to detect other vehicles in the blind-zone area. If you attempt to turn into that lane, the warning system will flash a symbol that lights up on the outside sideview mirrors, on the dash or both.
In the 2013 Buick LaCrosse and 2012 Mazda CX-5 sedans, the systems flash a warning chime if you start pulling out of your lane into the path of a vehicle in your blind spot. The 2012 and ’13 Ford Explorer and Fusion models provide a vibrating alert in the steering wheel (Cadillac offers vibrating seats) and then gently steers the car back into lane if the driver doesn’t. The ’12 and ’13 Infiniti M and M Hybrids warn drifting drivers with a grinding noise similar to going over a highway “drunk bump.”
Although parallel parking normally does not require turning around in your seat, a computerized parking assist system is a great aid if squeezing into a parking space is not one of your best driving skills. Several Ford, Lincoln, Volvo and Lexus models offer this feature as an option. Your car must be equipped with front and rear cameras for parking assist to work. The Ford and Lincoln system is hands-free — you just control gas and brake.
Help for Drowsy Drivers
An AAA survey found that more than 40 percent of Americans have "fallen asleep or nodded off while driving.” And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 17 percent of all fatal crashes occur as a result of drowsy drivers.
This translates into 1,500 deaths, 71,00 injuries and more than $12 million in property losses. Fortunately, several new systems exist that can literally scare a sleepy driver awake or refocus a distracted driver.
The primary way the auto technology is combatting that disturbing trend is with lane departure systems, which sound an alarm when sensors detect the kind of behavior associated with a snoozing or inattentive driver (e.g., veering into another lane).
(MORE: Q&A: The Dangers of Distracted Driving)
Lane departure systems work via sensors on the front bumpers or headlights that monitor the white or yellow line on a road. Some are linked to blind spot warning systems, depending on whether or how manufacturers have engineered the tiny cameras embedded in sideview mirrors or bumper corners to the on-board computers.
The most sophisticated system to combat dozing is in the Mercedes-Benz, which employs a camera that’s been programmed to recognize a driver’s eyelids that are closing for longer than a blink or a head that’s nodding forward. When detected, the system will emit a warning chime from your stereo speakers or cause your steering wheel or seat to vibrate (depending on make and model).
Automatic Braking Systems
Activated by a driver pressing hard on the brake pedal, anti-lock brakes have been around for decades and have saved countless lives. Today, in vehicles equipped with front-end cameras or radar linked to blind-spot monitoring and lane departure warning systems, onboard computers can recognize such dangers as being too close to the car in front of you or to an obstacle on the side of the road, and automatically activate the anti-lock braking system.
The 2012 Acura RL, MDX and ZDX models have a radar unit in the front grille that monitors the distance between you and the vehicle ahead. The system will speed up or slow down your car based on the flow of traffic. If the sensors determine a collision is unavoidable, the computer applies the brakes and tightens the front seat belts to reduce the impact force. All these safety systems are meant to assist the driver, not replace good driving habits.
Coming Down the Pike
Ford engineers are researching a heart rate monitor built into the steering wheel, similar to the way the heart rate monitor works on a stationary bike at the gym. However, this will not be for health monitoring, but to recognize a stressful driving situation to pre-activate safety systems.
Tips for Aging Drivers
In addition to smart technology, there are wise choices you can make when buying a new car.
- Doors: Four-door vehicles are more practical than two-door, since doors on those models are lighter and easier to open.
- Seats: Adjustable lumbar support can be varied to support the driver’s back and reduce discomfort by conforming to individual bodies’ shapes and sizes. Additionally, heated seats can ease muscle strain.
- Steering wheel: A thick, padded wheel is more comfortable for people with arthritis or gripping issues (or anybody with a long daily commute).
- Ignition: Push-button stop-start control is a good option for those who lack the manual dexterity required to turn a key. Some vehicles, like the Chevrolet Volt and Jaguar XJ sedan, also have a push-button parking brake.
- Automatic door controls: Whether you are juggling groceries or a squirmy grandchild or don’t have the strength or mobility to pull down a heavy door, automatic cargo door controls can be lifesavers.
- Dashboard gauges: Large, clear, easy-to-read numbers on the speedometer and odometer are helpful, as are larger audio and climate controls, especially for drivers with bifocals or progressive lenses or who have glaucoma, cataracts or compromised fine motor skills.
- Refresher courses: Obviously these don’t come with new vehicles, but they can help keep your skills sharp and remind you of things you may have forgotten over the decades — and taking one can save you money on your auto insurance. Check with AAA, your state's Department of Motor Vehicles or your insurance company for driver improvement courses tailored for aging drivers.
Evelyn Kanter has been reporting on automotive and consumer issues for more than two decades, including as a consumer reporter for ABC News and CBS News. Her automotive column, Freewheeling, is syndicated by Motor Matters.