Weekly column in the Washington Times Communities by Laurie Edwards-Tate

Get used to seeing more drivers with gray hair behind the wheel. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there will be 40 million American drivers over age 65 by 2020, up from 29 million today.

Many older drivers aren’t giving up their keys, unless they are buying a new car with a keyless entry. One in four of all new car purchases last year went to buyers over age 65 according to J.D. Power and Associates. The percentage is growing, and it is being accelerated due to the recession because older drivers have been better able to afford new vehicles. Automakers are thankful and they love it. They are working harder than ever to make their models appealing to older drivers.

But it’s true that older drivers need to make some adjustments based on physical changes and realities. Gas mileage and horsepower become less important than accessibility, visibility, and safety features.

Working with the University of Florida’s National Older Driver Research and Training Center, the American Automobile Association created a list of “Smart Features for Mature Drivers,” desirable assets that help older drivers maintain the ability to drive safely and securely. These are important considerations for drivers of any age.

  • A car that is crashworthy. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rates vehicle safety.
  • Stability control is a must for all drivers. It is now standard equipment for all vehicles starting in the 2012 model year.
  • A full set of airbags. Be sure to choose a car with side and curtain airbags in addition to front airbags.
  • Excellent visibility. This is best tested by each driver getting into the car and checking rear, side, and forward views, along with views of all the mirrors. Can they be adjusted properly for the driver?
  • Easy access. Can you get into the car without too much bending, climbing, ducking, or squeezing in? Is placing yourself on the seat easy, or a struggle?
  • Interior adjustments including power seats, lumbar support, levers or switches that make moving seats easy. Seats should move in six directions: forward, backward, up, down, and seatback forward and backward.
  • Adjustable pedals and steering wheels that help maintain a safe, effective driving position without compromising visibility or access
  • Easy to see and read controls and gauges. Controls should be mounted where they can easily be seen without taking eyes off the road, preferably at eye-level. Numbers and figures should be legible and not subject to glare or poor contrast.
  • Larger knobs, buttons, switches and locks that are easy to see and operate if hands are arthritic.

In general, four-door models are preferred over two-door models, which have longer, heavier doors. A lower door threshold makes it easier to step in and out. Keyless entries and ignitions and power windows and seats are easier to use and adjust.

Which cars are recommended for older drivers? There are numerous lists. It is easy to do your research online, then test-drive some of the brands and styles that appeal to you.

Medium-size and crossover vehicles top most lists. Smaller cars can be too close to the ground, requiring bending and may have limited visibility. Bigger vehicles are too hard to get into and maneuver. Crossovers are higher than most cars, lower than most SUVs, and have good overall safety ratings.

Vehicles that make appearances on many of the top ten lists of best cars for older drivers include:

  • Cadillac SRX crossover
  • Chrysler 300
  • Ford Taurus
  • Honda Odyssey minivan and CR-V small SUV
  • Nissan Cube
  • Toyota Avalon sedan and RAV-V small SUV
  • BMW 7 Series
  • Hyundai Veracruz SUV
  • Volvo XC60 and V50 station wagon

Also recommended: the Mazda5, Infiniti G37, and Lexus RX 350.

Giving up driving is one of the key reasons for a decline in health and well-being among older people, leading to them becoming more isolated and inactive. Finding ways to keep people driving safely for longer to help boost independence and keep older adults socially connected preserves physical, mental and emotional help and makes them less dependent.

Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!

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