How Technology Can Help Seniors Drive More Safely

For most of us who live outside cities with great public transit, losing the ability to drive can be an isolating and traumatic event. That’s especially true for seniors who live alone or in pedestrian-unfriendly suburbs.How Technology Can Help Seniors Drive More Safely

But these days, there are safety features that can help older (and younger) drivers stay safer, tools for choosing a new car with the right technology and special driver safety courses for older adults.

Staying Safe on the Road Matters

When seniors lose their ability to drive and don’t have a good transportation alternative, their social engagement falls off dramatically, according to a 2016 study involving more than 4,300 seniors. That doesn’t just lead to boredom or inconvenience — it can also have negative health effects. Researchers concluded that seniors who lose their social connections are at higher than average risk for dementia, depression and overall poor health.

One important limitation on that study: researchers didn’t investigate whether health problems were present before seniors stopped driving. But there are other studies that show that loneliness can cause health problems and even early death among older adults.

Anything that can keep older drivers mobile can contribute to better happiness and health. For many Baby Boomers who came of age during the golden era of American-made cars and the open-road freedom of the post-war interstate highway system, driving is a crucial part of their identities — one that connects them not only to their communities but also to their sense of youth.

Older Driver Safety Awareness Week

December 4-8, 2017 is Older Driver Safety Awareness Week in the U.S. With more than 47 million senior drivers on the road in the U.S. now, the topic is more timely than ever. The American Occupational Therapy Association is using the week to showcase its podcasts on topics that affect every family with older drivers. These topics include:

  1. Finding equipment that can make driving safer for seniors.
  2. Getting a driving fitness checkup from an occupational therapist who can spot potential problems and help solve them.
  3. Maintaining active social connections whether you’re driving or not.
  4. Planning ahead for age-related changes in driving ability so you know how to handle things like reduced ability to check your blind spot, difficulty seeing well at night, and longer reaction times.
  5. Talking to older relatives and friends about your concerns for their safety on the road in a way that’s productive and respectful.

You can use the AOTA database to find a driving specialist near you.

Top New Safety Features and Vehicles for Senior Drivers

If you haven’t bought a new car in a while, you can be forgiven for thinking (like I did) that antilock brakes and side airbags are the latest and greatest safety features. Those things matter, but new cars are using technology to help drivers navigate in ways that weren’t possible a few years ago – everything from lane-departure warnings to keep you from drifting to obstacle detection and drowsy driver alerts.

To get the scoop on all the latest safety features, check out the National Safety Council/University of Iowa website, My Car Does What. The site contains a list of available features with clear, simple explanations of what each features does (and doesn’t do). There are also videos that show many of the newer safety features in action, explanations of how they work, and tips for using each safety tool.

Consumer Reports’ 2017 Top 25 picks for senior-friendly vehicles focuses on driver’s seat access, headlights that compensate for less acute vision, user-friendly controls and visibility. The reviewers also looked for vehicles with blind-spot warning options, back-up cameras, front collision warning systems. and automatic emergency braking. The top five are:

  • Subaru Forester
  • Subaru Outback
  • Kia Soul
  • Subaru Legacy
  • Kia Sportage

All of the top 5 vehicles rated highly for easy-to-use controls. The Forester, Soul and Sportage all scored well on front-seat access —important for drivers with limited mobility. All three Subaru models in the top 5 rated well for visibility. The Outback and Sportage rated well for bright headlights.

Safe Driving Courses

Of course, new models with upgraded technology roll off the production lines every year, so what’s best in 2018 may be different from this year. Ultimately, the car that meets your parents’ individual needs is the best one for them. To help older drivers find the right vehicle based on their health and mobility issues, AAA offers an online checklist of features to seek out.

One way to stay safe on the road is to keep learning about safe driving. Even if you or your folks haven’t had an accident, a defensive driving course can refresh your memory about the things you should be doing on the road. If it’s been many years since your last defensive driving course or driver education program, one of these short classes – online or in person – may even bring you up to speed on new safety practices that you didn’t know about. For example, drivers who came of age before the era of antilock brakes may still think tapping the brakes helps avoid skids during hard stops and on slick roads, but with modern ABS technology, all you have to do is step on the brake pedal and the system takes care of the rest.

You can find in-person and online defensive driving courses through AAA’s website. AARP also offers online and local Smart Driver classes geared for older adults. Your folks may qualify for an insurance discount after they complete one of these courses.

Transportation When Your Parents Can’t Drive

Whether it’s due to a flat tire, an injury or a new medication that makes your dad or mom too drowsy to drive, there will almost certainly be times when your folks need a ride. The easiest way to avoid your parents getting stuck at home during these times is to help them find and try out their local transportation alternatives now, before they need them. For example, if their city has good public transportation, they should know which buses and trains will get them to the doctor’s office and to their favorite dining and shopping areas.

If public transit is limited where they live, now’s a good time to get to know the local taxi services along with rideshare options like Lyft and Uber. Their area may also have a volunteer service that offers free rides to seniors who can’t drive. Encourage your folks to try out these options on low-stress errands or outings so they can see which ones they prefer and understand how they work before they need to use them. This familiarity can also make it easier to transition away from relying on a car if your parents ever become permanently unable to drive.

For more information on seniors and driving, check out these other posts on the blog. For detailed information about senior care resources near you, contact at 1-800-805-3621.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.


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