Safer Cars Help Keep Older Drivers on the Road

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Personal Health

More than three decades ago, I fell in love with the first minivan I spotted parked in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Though I was never a “soccer mom,” I travel as if there were no stores at my destination, and here was a car that could carry half a household. And I loved sitting up high, able to see beyond the car in front of me.

Now four minivans later, I’ve downsized. At the urgings of a son and daughter-in-law concerned about keeping me alive on the road, I got a car with a long list of safety features – in my case, a Subaru Outback – that would have all the bells and whistles to compensate for any driving-related losses I may have suffered since getting a license 56 years ago.

Yes, after 10 years in a Toyota Sienna that I adored, there will be a steep learning curve. But driving home from the Subaru dealer with the lane departure feature activated, I immediately saw one benefit: The car beeped me and displayed a visual image every time I got too close to either side of my lane when I wasn’t signaling a turn. Backing out of a parking lot, the dashboard backup camera assured me that I wasn’t about to hit another car or pedestrian, though I also used my eyes and mirrors as added insurance.

Given the tsunami of baby boomers and their predecessors still driving, the auto industry anticipated a need for vehicles with features that can enable people like me to remain independent and easily connected to distant friends, family and favored places.

When a crash occurs involving an older driver, it tends to garner media attention, whereas the same accident with a younger driver would not. “That’s unfair to the general population of older adults, who are among the safest drivers on the road,” said Jacob Nelson, the director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA.

After years of advising others on how to get older drivers to relinquish the car keys, which often resulted in lost independence, isolation and depression (as well as family disputes), driving experts like Mr. Nelson now focus on helping the elderly select vehicles that can accommodate their physical disabilities and certain sensory or cognitive losses.

As Elin Schold Davis, coordinator of the Older Driver Initiative of the American Occupational Therapy Association, put it, “It’s not about taking away the keys based on age, it’s about function.” The current approach is “to support people to enable them to drive as long as possible” without unduly endangering themselves or anyone else.

Ms. Schold Davis highly recommended a $400 consultation with an occupational therapy driving rehabilitation specialist “as perhaps the best investment to make before selecting features in a car to best fit your health and physical issues.”

“There’s no such thing as the best car for an older person,” Mr. Nelson said. “What matters are the features, and the features appropriate for one older driver are not necessarily appropriate for another.”

For example, as someone with arthritic hands (among other body parts), I’m aided by power seats that can be preset two ways: one for my best driving position and the other to ease entry and exit from the car. Other useful features include power windows and mirrors, a thicker steering wheel that is easier to grip, keyless entry, an automatic tailgate closer and a push-button to start (and stop) the engine.

However, Mr. Nelson warned drivers of all ages about one feature now in most new cars: the backup camera. While great for older adults with flexibility issues and short people like me who can’t see objects directly behind the car, it won’t detect anything in the blind spot. That is, it cannot see people, vehicles or bicycles approaching the car from the side. The camera is meant to supplement, not replace, a driver’s visual checks. You must still check your mirrors, turn your head if possible and proceed with caution.

The AAA has created a very useful computerized site to help older drivers identify the makes and models of vehicles within various price ranges that may best suit their particular issues. At, drivers can use drop-down menus to choose among categories like diminished vision, limited upper body range of motion, short stature or overweight, and decreased leg strength.

For those with various vision problems common among the elderly, for example, features like a high-contrast instrument panel with large number and letter displays, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and glare-reducing side mirrors can enhance driver safety.

Sometimes features that auto engineers consider helpful are annoying or distracting for some drivers. Several of the visual or audible warnings in my new car can be turned on or off by the driver.

Ms. Schold Davis urged people to “plan to spend time choosing a car and select the latest built-in safety features you can afford.” Noting that “not all safety features are alike car-to-car,” she said choosing the right car should be individualized according to each driver’s needs. The ultimate goal: “Decrease the likelihood of a crash and cushion against serious injury should a crash occur,” she said.

With the exception of dementia or certain conditions like serious visual impairment, “the diagnosis of a medical condition should not determine whether it’s safe for someone to drive,” Mr. Nelson said. “What does matter is how you manage your condition — whether, for example, you have diabetes and keep your blood sugar under control to prevent a blackout.” Manage your health issue properly, and chances are there is a car available that is safe for you to drive.

The University of Florida’s Institute for Mobility, Activity and Participation has created a free fitness-to-drive screening tool to help families and caregivers assess an older adult’s fitness to get behind the wheel. It is available at The online tool can rate a driver’s difficulty with 54 driving skills and classify the driver as at-risk, routine or accomplished.

Thinking ahead, I chose not to buy my new car. I leased it. In three years, there are likely to be still more safety features to help protect me and others on the road, and I can replace the 2017 Outback with a new updated version or another make or model entirely. Also, a new car is more reliable, unlikely to break down or require major repairs within three years.

As Ms. Schold Davis said, “both active and passive safety features are changing hand over fist.” If in three years I have more physical and sensory issues than I do now, I will invest in the occupational therapy consultation she recommended before choosing a new car. Or my circumstances may change and I’ll need no car at all.