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

Posted: December 16, 2012

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Carmakers are taking advantage of innovations in electronics and software to trick out the interiors of their vehicles. The gizmos appeal to tech-savvy buyers. But those interior features are quietly aimed at another audience: aging baby boomers.

Former British politician Ann Widdecombe tests Ford's active park assist feature in the U.K. in July 2011.

Former British politician Ann Widdecombe tests Ford's active park assist feature in the U.K. in July 2011.

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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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