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1:31 am
Mon December 17, 2012

New Car Features May Keep Older Drivers Out Of The Big Yellow Taxi

Originally published on Mon December 17, 2012 2:08 pm

In some of the most potent cultural images we have of cool cars, they are being driven by young men — Ron Howard cruising in American Graffiti, cousins Bo and Luke from The Dukes of Hazzard sliding over the hood of the General Lee, James Dean behind the wheel of his Porsche.

But these days some of the coolest things about our cars aren't there to dazzle the young. They're there to accommodate the aging. With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, it's easy to see why.

Sharon Berlin, a research analyst with AAA, says research shows older drivers are more likely to wear seat belts. They're less likely to drink and drive. And, yes, they drive slower.

"In reality, what we know is that older drivers are actually among the safest drivers on the roads," Berlin says.

Berlin says driving is a function of ability, not necessarily a function of age. But with age come certain conditions that become more common.

"And those conditions can make driving a little bit more difficult," Berlin says.

It's those conditions that carmakers are trying to design around to make it easier and more comfortable to drive.

One of the simplest new features is push-button ignition.

"If you have any arthritic joints in your hands, the fine motor skills needed to grasp the key and turn it can really elicit a lot of pain. So the push-button ignition simplifies that," Berlin says.

It's not just push-button ignition; there are a whole bevy of features that are making driving easier for older adults.

The Ford Focus park assist can basically park the car itself. New Infinitis can alert drivers to vehicles located in the blind spot area. And Mercedes-Benz's lane-keeping assist technology sends a warning before drivers drift out of their lane.

Those features can be a giant help for drivers who are physically limited. Lane assist helps if, say, you have trouble turning your head, or if you have poor peripheral vision. Wider doors can help you get in and out of vehicles.

Lisa Molnar, a lead research associate at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, says many of these new features are specifically for older drivers. But, she says, they're also just good universal design.

"To a great extent, a lot of the things that we can do to make things easier for older adults will actually make things easier for the larger population. So it's a win-win situation when that works," Molnar says.

Still, Molnar says what's good for older drivers is not always good for younger ones. She says in an ideal world there would be different vehicles for older drivers.

But, she says, "it doesn't probably make sense to design a vehicle that we call an older-driver vehicle and market it in that way."

That's clearly what the consumer literature shows. People aren't going to drive a vehicle called an older-driver vehicle.

Molnar says while there won't be old-people cars per se, drivers at least can pick features that make driving easier. Molnar says the engineering is the easy part. The hard part, she says, is making the transition from driving to not driving.

"There are often ways that people can continue to drive, albeit under more limited circumstances, but without having to give up the keys altogether," Molnar says.

Molnar says we plan for retirement — and we should plan to stop driving in the same way.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Think now about some of the most potent cultural images we have of cars, cool cars. There's usually a young man behind the wheel from Ron Howard cruising in "American Graffiti," cousins Bo and Luke from "The Dukes of Hazzard" sliding over the hood of the General Lee, James Dean behind the wheel of his Porsche. Well, these days, some of the coolest things about cars are not there to dazzle the young.

They're actually there to accommodate the aging. Today's business bottom line has baby boomers behind the wheel. There are 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day and as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports, car makers see a market.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I will absolutely, positively not tell any old people driving jokes in this story. I'll let Jerry Seinfeld do that.

JERRY SEINFELD: They drive so slowly and I would think the less time you have in life, the faster you would want to go. You know, I think old people should be allowed to drive their age. If you're 80, do 80. If you're 100, go 100. But they can't see where they're going anyway. Let them have a little fun out there.

GLINTON: Ok, That's funny and all...

SHARON BERLIN: But in reality, what we know is that older drivers are actually among the safest drivers on the roads.

GLINTON: Sharon Berlin is with AAA, the motor club. The research shows older drivers are more likely to wear seat belts. They're less likely to drink and drive. And, yes, they drive slower, which is much safer.

BERLIN: Driving is a function of ability, not necessarily a function of age. With age come certain conditions that become more common. And those conditions can make driving a little bit more difficult.

GLINTON: It's those conditions that carmakers are trying to design around to make it easier to drive and more comfortable. One of the simplest new features is push button ignition. Again, Sharon Berlin.

BERLIN: It really can benefit anybody. If you have any arthritic joints in your hands, the fine motor skills needed to grasp the key and turn it, can really elicit a lot of pain. So the push button ignition simplifies that.

GLINTON: It's not just push button ignition. There are a whole bevy of features that are making driving easier for adults.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It might be hard to believe that the new Focus can virtually park itself until you actually see it park itself.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As you want for vehicles beside you, so does your Infiniti, helping you to complete safe lane changes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The standard rear view camera's a big help, especially when you're in a tight space.

GLINTON: All those features can be a giant help for drivers who are physically limited. Lane assist helps if, say, you have trouble turning your head, or if you have poor peripheral vision. Wider doors can help you get in and out of vehicles. Lisa Molnar is with the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. She says many of these new features are specifically for older drivers, but they're also just good universal design.

LISA MOLNAR: To a great extent, a lot of the things that we can do to make things easier for older adults will actually make things easier for the larger population. And so it's a win-win situation when that works.

GLINTON: Molnar says what's good for older drivers is not always good for younger drivers. She says in an ideal world, there would be different vehicles for older drivers. But, she says...

MOLNAR: It doesn't probably make sense to design a vehicle that we call an older driver vehicle and market it in that way.

GLINTON: I know it isn't because my mother ain't driving no old vehicle.

MOLNAR: Exactly, exactly and that's clearly what the consumer literature shows. People aren't going to buy a car that's marketed as an older driver vehicle.

GLINTON: Molnar says, while there won't be old people car per se, drivers at least can pick features that make driving easier. She says all the engineering, that's the easy part. The hard part is making the transition from driving to not driving.

MOLNAR: There are often ways that people can continue to drive, albeit under more limited circumstances, but without having to give up the keys altogether.

GLINTON: Both experts say we all need to make plans for when we won't be able to drive. They say we plan for retirement and we should plan to stop driving in the same way. Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.