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AARP Driver Safety Program Focuses on Tech

Workshops help older people take advantage of new car safety technology

Man using touchscreen dashboard in car

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AARP's Smart DriverTEK course is designed to help people over 50 learn about the safety technology they are likely to find in their new cars

Current and emerging technologies are being installed in an ever-increasing number of vehicle models. The problem? Many older drivers don’t take advantage of these new safety features. The goal of the Smart DriverTEK class is to correct this, extending the number of years those over 50 are able to safely stay on the road.

AARP developed the educational workshop in partnership with the Hartford, after drivers started expressing interest in learning more about evolving hi-tech advances. It is distinct from AARP’s Smart Driver course in that it will not result in a discount on your auto insurance, but the workshop (which costs $5 in some states) does offer a deep dive into systems built to protect drivers and passengers. “With the changes in vehicle technology over the last five years, it’s critical for drivers to stay updated and informed,” said Kyle Rakow, vice president and national director of AARP Driver Safety.

“Too many older consumers buy a new car fully loaded with these safety technologies … that they don’t fully understand how to operate,” says Ken Ow, 64, an AARP Smart Driver instructor and CarFit event coordinator. “Mature drivers feel overwhelmed."

Smart DriverTEK, with workshops around the country, aims to change that.  

At a recent 90-minute AARP workshop in Bethesda, Md., about two dozen drivers gathered to hear Janae Wheeler explain safety features that go way beyond airbags and crumple zones. Imagine, for example, brakes that automatically activate before a crash, preventing a collision.

Wheeler highlighted the safety technologies available to consumers today and stressed that it’s crucial to ask the car dealer to explain and demonstrate how to activate and use them. She gave the participants a checklist of nine key safety features that are important to understand.

1. Smart headlights In many new cars, curve-adaptive headlights help you see more clearly as you maneuver along dark, curvy roads. Another helpful addition is high-beam assist, which reduces glare and allows you to avoid manually switching between high and low beams when another vehicle approaches (your car does it automatically).    

2. Reverse monitoring system You may already know this as your backup camera. (This safety feature will be standard in all 2018 and later-year models.)

3. Blind spot warning systems These are “proximity sensors” in your side-view mirrors. If you use your turning signal to indicate a lane switch, they will alert you if another vehicle is dangerously close, even if you don't see it in the mirror. 

4. Lane-departure warning A camera monitors your car’s position, alerting you if you are drifting into another lane. Some cars will gently nudge the car back into the correct lane, but don’t worry — the driver is always in control.  

5. Forward-collision warning Sensors detect if you are getting too close to the car in front of you and send a warning. In some cars it is a loud sound; in others, the seat vibrates. There are models in which the car seat adjusts and the seat belt tightens ahead of a potential crash. Some vehicles are equipped with active braking systems or automatic emergency brakes, which literally stop the car before a crash. “This is a game changer,” says Ow. “It will keep people alive.”

6. Drowsy-driver alerts  Are your eyelids getting heavy? Are you blinking more slowly? Your car can tell. And while your vehicle can’t yet brew up an emergency dashboard espresso, it can tell you, via vibrating seats or buzzing sounds, to wake up and pull over.

7. Assistive-parking system With the help of cameras and sensors, your car can parallel park itself on a city street or back into a garage space. For many drivers, letting the car park itself for the first time can be “nerve-wracking!” Wheeler cautions.

8. Adaptive cruise control You’re driving on a highway and want to make sure you maintain a safe distance from the car ahead of you. Adaptive cruise control allows you to decide how much of a gap you want, and then your vehicle maintains that distance by performing the required accelerating or braking.

9. Emergency-response systems Despite all these terrific new safety features, accidents do happen. Sometimes bad ones. This feature, also called automatic crash notification, alerts a third party. In turn, the third party immediately directs emergency personnel to your location.

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