The right to drive a car almost feels enshrined in the Constitution. But the growing number of older motorists—by 2030, one of every four drivers could be 65-plus—has kindled heated debate about when someone should be barred from taking the wheel. Experts say, however, that road veterans should focus on a more immediate concern: how to keep driving safely as long as possible.
The good news is that adding years to your driving life can be easy. Instruction and research by national organizations and universities break down solutions into four areas: driver fitness, car equipment adjustments, equipment add-ons and new technology.
Though the top safety factor in any auto is the person behind the wheel, the importance of motorists' physical fitness is often overlooked.
A recent study of drivers age 70-plus at the Yale School of Medicine indicates that a regimen of strength and flexibility exercises can improve the performance of older motorists.
"We're not talking about becoming master athletes," says Richard Marottoli, M.D., the geriatrician who directed the study. "Even a little bit of fitness and flexibility can make a difference."
Here's a sampling of exercises you can do, with your doctor's approval.
• Flexibility of the neck is particularly important for checking the blind spot. To work your neck, slowly turn your head as far as you can to the left and hold it there for 10 seconds. Return to the center and then turn your head to the right and hold 10 seconds. Repeat the sequence three times.
• Maintaining strength in hands, arms and legs can help reaction time. For hands, a variety of products (priced from about $8 to $110) strengthen by providing resistance. (Low-tech option: squeezing a tennis ball.)
• Walk briskly for 30 minutes every day. Be sure to wear appropriate shoes.
The adjustable features in cars today don't help unless they're used properly. "The objectives are safety and comfort," says Frank Carroll, interim director of AARP Driver Safety Program and Mobility Options. Your auto should fit you like a well-tailored suit. Here's what to look for.
When adjusted to work together, outside and inside rearview mirrors can greatly reduce blind spots. Set the interior mirror so it shows you as much of the rear window as possible. Next, lean your head against the left window and adjust the left side-view mirror so you can just see the rear side of your car. Position your head in the middle of the car, above the center console, and adjust the right-side mirror so you can just see the rear side.
• Position the driver's seat so you have a clear line of sight at least 3 inches over the steering wheel and can reach the gas pedal and completely depress the brake pedal without stretching awkwardly. You should be able to move your foot easily between brake and gas. Keep in mind that your body needs to be at least 10 to 12 inches from the steering wheel for an air bag to deploy safely.
• Position the center of the headrest so that the back of your head, not your neck, would connect with it in an emergency.
• Always buckle up, positioning the lower part of the seat belt across your hips, not your abdomen.
If a properly adjusted car still presents difficulties, drivers have many different ways they can customize a car for greater safety and comfort, says Dannielle Sherrets, manager of traffic safety research and analysis for AAA. Consider working with a shop that handles car modifications. Options include:
• An oversize mirror ($50) will fit over your standard rearview mirror to increase field of vision.
• Pads can raise your seat height, and pedal extensions — clamps that attach with a wrench — can put the floor controls within convenient reach ($150 for a set of two).
• The Handybar ($40), a sturdy support handle that inserts into a car's door frame, can make getting into and out of a car smoother.
• An Easy Reach Seat Belt Handle ($10) or an Invacare Seat Belt Handle ($3) can ensure that reaching the buckle won't be a stretch. (Low-tech option: a string or ribbon tied to the belt.)
You've seen the TV ad. The driver of a Lexus 460 luxury sedan pulls up to a parking spot, takes his hands off the steering wheel and lets the car parallel-park itself.
The $61,000 starting price of the Lexus LS460 is a lot to pay to avoid parallel parking. But options often start in high-end vehicles before trickling down to more affordable models.
Steve Mazor, manager of the automotive research center for the Auto Club of Southern California, invites groups of older drivers to review the latest options. Here are some things they find useful:
High-intensity headlights are popular, as are "adaptive headlights," which swivel to stay pointed at the road on curves. The same for electrochromic mirrors, the kind that automatically darken when bright light hits a sensor. "Visibility is a big issue with seniors," Mazor says.
GPS screen navigation systems get high marks because older drivers "like the security these systems can provide, as long as they're not overly complicated to use."
Rearview cameras or sensors, now options in many vehicles, appeal to drivers who have trouble turning their neck. "The systems on the market today are not ideally suited as safety devices, more as backing aids to help you see your way out of a parking spot," Mazor cautions.
Adaptive cruise control in a few high-end models uses radar to sense the distance from other vehicles and adjusts speed to keep a safe space. The newest Infiniti M45 and FX models issue a warning when a camera and computer processor detect you wandering out of your lane.
Reed Karaim is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Ariz.