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New technology assists elderly drivers

By Robert DiGiacomo

For older drivers looking to stay behind the wheel, technology definitely can be your friend.

A range of high-tech equipment, from “smart” headlights that adjust the amount of light to surrounding traffic to GPS-based emergency response systems, is available to help ensure the safe operation of your car.

“Usually, these features first become available in luxury and higher-end vehicles, but more and more of them are becoming available across all levels,” says Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist with The Hartford. The auto insurance company teamed up with MIT’s AgeLab to compile a list of helpful technologies for older drivers.

Here’s a look at what high-tech features are available now and what’s coming down the road.

Lights on for safety

Nighttime driving is one of the biggest issues for older drivers because of difficulties adjusting to glare, Olshevski says.

Many automakers offer “smart headlights,” which automatically adjust the range and intensity of the lights based on how far away other cars are, reducing glare.

Infrared or heat-sensing technology – in models like the 2013 Lexus GS and Audi A6 – allow drivers with night blindness to “see through the dark,” according to Brian Moody, site editor for These systems used infrared cameras mounted on the front of a car that can detect pedestrians or objects in its path.

Warning: Danger ahead

With older drivers often having slower response times in emergency situations, a number of systems are in place to inform drivers of a potential hazard or accident, Olshevski says.

These include cameras and beeping noises to help drivers and alert passersby when reversing a car, alarms that warn drivers of obstacles in blind spots during lane-changing and parking and a signal if a vehicle starts to drift out of its lane.

Some models, including the 2013 Subaru Outback and Volvo XC60, also try to stop the car if an impending collision is detected, Moody says.

Should an accident occur, you can get help automatically through two-way communication services, such as General Motors’ OnStar or Ford’s Sync, which can send for a tow truck or medical assistance.

“You want to be able to minimize injuries if you’re get into a crash and you’re over 50, and getting assistance quickly can help with those medical outcomes,” Olshevski says.

However, systems like OnStar and Sync charge monthly fees starting at $20 a month or so – typically after offering a free trial period for the first year, Moody says.

Driver’s sightline

Driver’s seats typically can be tweaked for tilt, distance from the steering wheel and pedals, and lumbar support, but perhaps even more important for older operators with physical or mobility issues is being able to adjust the seat height, Moody says. Many cars in the $20,000 range, such as the Chevrolet Malibu, offer this feature, he says.

“The height of the seat can make it a lot easier to get in and out of the car,” he says.

Start at the push of a button

An increasingly common feature — push-button start — is another benefit to older drivers.

Now found in many Kia, Mazda, Honda and Volkswagen models, as well as higher-end brands, the button can be an advantage to a driver with mobility issues or arthritis, for whom “twisting might not be the most pleasant thing in the world,” Moody says.

Plus, the dash-mounted button usually is easier to access versus putting a key in an ignition, he says.

What does the future hold?

In the next decade, older drivers may be able to use technology that will let cars practically drive themselves, according to Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan.

Among the advances being developed are tools to allow a car to stay in its lane, even if the driver takes his or her hand off the wheel; mirrors of different “focal lengths” to help eliminate blind spots; and a system to detect the presence of pedestrians near a vehicle that could become a mandatory federal requirement.

Currently being tested by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation is so-called “connected vehicle” technology that will let cars “talk” with each other via radio wave communications.

“You could get an electronic brake warning for a car 10 vehicles ahead of you in the queue,” Wallace says. “You will have more notice of people slowing down.”

Another “technology” for older drivers to consider is how well a car performs in crash tests. If all else fails and you crash your car, you want to have the utmost confidence in a vehicle’s ability to protect you, Moody says.

Among the 2013 models that have received the highest safety ratings are the Kia Optima, Dodge Charger and Buick LaCrosse.

“Even (tools) that will stop your car automatically can’t overcome physics — they’re just a way to minimize injury, minimize risk or make you pay attention,” Moody says.

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