Our purpose is not to have you run out and get a new car, especially if you are content with the one that you have and can safely drive it. But, if the time has come to replace it, here are some things to consider when picking your next ride. Advances in technology continue to have a major impact on the automotive industry. The old adage, “they don’t make them like they used to,” in the context of cars and trucks, is probably a good thing. Lots of the features that are now standard, or which are relatively inexpensive, are really neat and can greatly enhance your safety as an older driver.
There are four big categories of vehicle characteristics that an older adult needs to consider in assessing a car. Our point is not to be elementary and certainly not to condescend, but we understand that the excitement of getting a new car, or the pressure of needing to replace one, may cause you to overlook some of the very basic factors. That’s what the next section of this article addresses. The second section recognizes some of the physical issues that attend age and that may cause driving problems. This article is not intended to be a medical treatise, so we have referred you to a source for further information about what vehicle features may help you if you have any of the listed conditions. But please understand, none of this is intended, not should it be substituted, for medical advice.
Finally, we’ll get into the fun stuff — those features and electronics that could never have been imagined years ago (especially since that at least in 2013, the average age of cars on the road was more than 11 years old). Many of these enhancements improve safety generally, and for older drivers in particular.
Basic Considerations for Choosing a Vehicle
These are the tried and true factors that all drivers, regardless of age, need to consider when buying a new car.
- Safety: Seat belts, shoulder harnesses, and airbags have been standard for years, but more recently, there have been failures of deployment of airbags. Therefore, if you have not traded cars in a while and are considering doing so, it is important to get a check-up on the new or used car or truck. This includes a search for recall information or other forms of safety warnings from the manufacturer or the National Highway Safety Administration. An investigation can also be done on websites such as Edmunds or Cars.com.
- Ergonomics: This refers to the design of the vehicle and whether the vehicle is a good physical fit for you. For example, do the seats adjust to positions allowing you to drive for extended periods? While all seats adjust, are the adjustments right for your size and stature? Are the pedals high enough from the floor of the car that you can reach them without stretching?
- Comfort: Comfort relates to the overall size of the car for you, the width, and height of door openings, the sufficiency of leg room, and the size and layout of control buttons and warning lights. Although you may have had your heart set on a sports car for years, changes in your body and mobility may require you to strike that from the list.
- Value: It is exciting to buy or lease a new car; it always has been and always will be. You may feel that you owe it to yourself. It might be that your car is just shot, and you have no alternative but to replace it. Whatever the reason, there is more to it than just paying for it. The total cost of ownership (or leasing) includes the acquisition cost, installment payments, insurance, maintenance, reliability, fuel economy and resale value (if you bought it). The vehicles from which you can choose all have different places on this matrix, some better, some worse. Think about the totality of the transaction. As the saying goes, just because you can afford it does not mean that you should get it. There are lots of other financial costs in Seniorhood, many that cannot be anticipated.
Additional Features for Drivers with Age-Related Conditions
As we age, things happen to our bodies and functionality that, while not rendering us unable to drive, require accommodation to drive safely. The American Automobile Association offers a very useful inventory of car options that will help older adults. The features differ depending upon the condition or disability of the individual. Some of the most common include:
- Knee, hip and leg problems
- Height and weight
- Arthritic hands and diminished motor skills
- Limited upper body range of motion
- Diminished vision
- Cognitive decline
Take a look at the additional features that correlate with some of these conditions and that might apply to you.
Now for the Really Cool Buck Rogers–Star Wars Stuff
There are lots of safety features that have come about in the last few years — and many that are being developed — that, since your last car purchase, may sound like something from Buck Rogers (if you remember him), or more recently, Star Wars. Some are included in option packages and some are not; there are also lower-cost versions that serve an essentially similar purpose. There are some that, while not brand new, have been improved or augmented in a way that may be new to you.
Here are some new developments and features in the world of automotive innovation that can truly help the older adult driver. The first one is not yet ready for prime time, but we thought you’d like to see what the future may hold.
- One of the very hot technologies that you probably have heard about is the “self-driving car,” also sometimes called a “driverless car” or an “autonomous car.” The initial technology was developed by Google, but other companies have also become involved. Autonomous cars are far from perfected, and they will remain very expensive for the foreseeable future. But you have to admit, the concept is neat. Here is a YouTube video to see one in action.
- Air Bags. Even older cars had at least two front airbags. But among inexpensive 2016 models, many come with side-curtain airbags in both the front and back of the car. Some have side airbags mounted to the seats too. Look for these in the lower-cost car market. Cars in the mid-range market have options for inflatable seat belts, and cars in the higher-end market, such as Volvo, offer a pedestrian airbag that inflates over the windshield in case you hit someone crossing your path.
- Back-up cameras are great once you get accustomed to them. When you put the transmission into reverse, a dashboard display shows what is behind you. In some devices, trajectory lines and distances are also displayed. These obviate the need to look over your shoulder while backing, which can sometimes be hard for older adults with physical disabilities. Old habits are hard to break, such as looking over your shoulder if you are able. If you have a relatively low collision deductible on your car insurance, the cost of this option may not be worth it to you. Nonetheless, The National Highway Safety Administration plans to make these mandatory by May 2018.
- Back-up Sensors. These are a lower-cost version of the camera. They make a sound when you are approaching an obstacle (like a car behind you in a parking lot).
- Self-parking. This allows the car to parallel-park itself. It is an option and sometimes is part of an option package. It is a convenience rather than a safety feature, but can be useful if you are in a city and must parallel park often.
- Adaptive Cruise Control. This is a true safety feature. It uses a radar unit to scan the road ahead and slows your car if it detects a slower moving vehicle ahead; it then re-accelerates when the obstacle is gone.
- Adaptive Headlights. The headlight beam pivots with the steering input from the steering wheel. It lights the road directly in front of you such as when rounding a curve.
- Forward Collision Warning. This device uses cameras or lasers to notify you when there is a vehicle ahead or when you are coming up too fast. There is a version of it that automatically stops the car if you don’t obey or are inattentive to the sound or visual warning.