For far too long, senior drivers have been ignored or, even worse, vilified.
For far too long, senior drivers have been ignored or, even worse, vilified. And when it comes to catering to the special and specific requirements in cars and on the roads, senior drivers might just as well be invisible.
However, maybe things are improving.
A recent study by the RACQ (one of the more enlightened motoring associations) has detailed car buying priorities as we age.
It recognises that strength, mobility, flexibility, vision and reaction times all change with age.
As the RACQ says, these changes reduce the confidence many senior drivers feel when driving, leaving them less comfortable and less in control.
These are important considerations when buying a new or second-hand car.
Nothing should be a higher priority for senior drivers (and, indeed, all drivers) than safety. However, it is perhaps even more important because the older we get, the more prone we are to injury in a crash, and the longer it takes to heal.
There are two forms of safety in cars: those that avoid the crash in the first place, and those that protect the occupants if a crash does occur.
Safety features that help in preventing a crash include:
- autonomous emergency braking, AEB (if an emergency is detected, the brakes are applied, even if you don’t take action)
- brake assist (applies maximum emergency braking effort even if you don’t – most people tend not to brake as hard as they potentially can, even in an emergency)
- anti-lock brakes (assists in maintaining vehicle control in wet and slippery conditions)
- stability control (assists in maintaining the car on its correct path)
- adaptive cruise control (cruise control maintains a set speed, although not always particularly well, while adaptive cruise control also maintains a set following distance)
- rear cross traffic alert (alerts you to approaching traffic you may not be able to see)
- blind spot monitoring (alerts you to objects you may not be able to see in the mirrors, such as other vehicles approaching from the rear three quarter)
- reverse camera (provides vision directly behind to eliminate blind spots, below your line of vision or outside the range of your rear vision mirrors)
- parking/reversing sensors (provides an audible, and often visual, warning you are approaching an object while parking)
- lane keep assist (assists in keeping within traffic lanes)
- lane departure warning (warns if you are drifting out of a traffic lane)
- speed sign recognition (removes uncertainty by displaying speed zones on the dash).
The problem with many of these systems is that they are far from infallible, and can, on occasion, be distracting and annoying.
Specifically, AEB can activate and apply the brakes if you are approaching a vehicle in a lane other than your own. This is not only annoying, but also likely to create the risk of you being rear-ended by a driver behind. Cruise control cannot be relied upon (in many vehicles) to maintain the speed you have set, especially on downhill inclines (European cars tend to be more effective at this than some others). Exceeding a set speed limit, even if you have the cruise control set at or below the speed limit will not get you out of the penalty. Lane keep assist can tug at the wheel, even when you are still well within the lane and it is not unknown for drivers to over-react, potentially putting themselves in danger. Speed sign recognition often misreads speed signs (such as a lower speed sign on a freeway exit, for example) or fails to read the correct speed sign where there are many (such as in road works). Other speed sign indicators are connected to the satellite navigation and so don’t tell you the correct speed limit where the speed limit has changed, is variable or may be temporarily varied (road works, school zones, in the presence of emergency vehicles, etc).
One of the greatest advances over recent years has been the protection of occupants inside vehicles when involved in a crash. Older drivers often argue that older cars were inherently safer because they were stronger, but it is things like crumple zones that actually protect the occupants (while, as a consequence, often dramatically increasing the cost of repairs).
Some of the features that help protect occupants in a crash include:
- structural integrity (a strong, safe passenger compartment protects you and other occupants in a crash)
- airbags (assist the seatbelts to prevent occupants contacting hard, unyielding surface inside the car in a crash)
- head restraints on all seats (helps reduce whiplash injuries)
- pre-crash mode (identifies an imminent crash and prepares the car’s safety systems)
- seatbelts with pretensioners (manages the crash forces the occupants are exposed to).
For some inexplicable reason, many people ignore their own safety in cars. Seatbelts are proven to save lives. Airbags are also life savers, but they need to be used in conjunction with seatbelts to be most effective. Not wearing a seatbelt is not only stupid; it can be fatal. Resting your feet on the dashboard can cause serious injuries if the airbag activates. Placing objects on the dashboard on top of the airbag can turn these into potentially lethal projectiles if the airbag deploys.
Put simply, the best safety innovations are useless if you don’t use them, or deactivate them.
Finding cars with high safety standards is not difficult. New cars all carry an ANCAP score that assesses how many of the safety features are included in any car you are considering, and reports on how well the vehicle performs in standardised laboratory crash tests. Check out ANCAP scores here.
Used cars can be a little more problematical. It is worth noting that a five-star ANCAP-rated car of a few years ago might not score so highly today. Checking how any vehicle you are considering at UCSR (Used Car Safety Ratings) will tell you how well it has performed in real-world crashes. Used vehicle ratings can be found here.
Getting in and out
As we age, some of us find it harder to get in and out of some cars. This is exacerbated if you have restricted movement due to a knee or hip replacement, arthritis or any other affliction that makes you less limber.
You need to consider cars that suit your individual usage requirements and to ensure that you can get in and out without undue bending or stretching.
If the seating position is too low, it can be uncomfortable or even painful getting in or out. On the other hand, a high-riding or large SUV may also be difficult to climb into and out of. Also, check the side steps and other obstructions that you will need to navigate to get in and out, and if it’s a tall vehicle, ensure there are convenient and usable grab handles where you need them. And also check that the doors open wide enough and the opening is generous enough to make it easy to get in and out.
Don’t overlook the luggage compartment. Loading luggage into a vehicle becomes more onerous as we age. If the loading lip is high, lifting heavy objects into the compartment may not be easy. If it is too low, you may have to bend further than is comfortable. Another consideration is how the luggage compartment is accessed – if it requires you to wave your foot under the rear bumper, is your balance sufficiently good to cope? And while you’re back there, ensure the tailgate can open inside your garage without hitting anything and that you can reach it to close it when it is fully open (some vehicles have tailgates that can be set to a pre-determined height; others can be closed with the press of a button). Power-operated tailgates are particularly useful if your arm movement is limited or your arm strength reduced.
These and other reasons explain why small and mid-sized SUVs have become so popular with buyers of all ages, but particularly over-50s. They usually have more upright styling and a higher seating position (called the hip point) that make them easy to live with. Climb in and out a few times when test driving the vehicle to see if it suits your needs.
One of the most common complaints is about technology in modern cars, that much of it is unnecessary or overly complex. And you pay for it whether you want it or not.
It may take some time to learn and become comfortable with the technology in modern cars, but generally speaking, doing so is worthwhile. Once you become accustomed to much of the technology, you’ll wonder how you ever did without it, and feel strangely at a loss when driving cars not fitted with features you have become used to.
Before you decide not to use the technology you have paid for, at least investigate it and give it a chance. If you still don’t like it, then by all means ignore it or switch it off. Many people hate stop/start (where the car’s engine shuts down when stationary) and disable it at the first opportunity. Again, give it a chance. You may be surprised how quickly you get used to it.
Features such as bluetooth are essential if you want to use your phone in the car. In most cases, once you have paired your phone, you won’t need to bother with it again. Entertainment options have proliferated. Most cars have dispensed with cassette players and even CD players are becoming obsolete. If you want to stream music or use features from your mobile phone, you’ll need to carry out the proper procedures.
If you are buying a new car, have the sales person take you through the procedure. Another tip is to go back to the dealership after a month or so and get a refresher course; you will have found all sorts of issues that you weren’t aware of in the first session. If you’re buying a used car, have the previous owner explain the technical ins and outs, or ask at the dealership when you have the car serviced.
When we’re asked what the most dramatic improvements in cars over the past few years are, there are many, but we often point out the huge improvement in lights.
These days, headlight technology is quite amazing. Headlights pivot with the front wheels, stay on high beam without dazzling oncoming motorists, adaptively light the side of the road and have many more features (not all of which are available on all models).
Auto-on headlights are common, although they may not always illuminate as early as you might wish (it’s a similar problem with auto wipers that often wipe too soon or not soon enough). Auto high beam is also a feature that can be annoying – some dip whenever faced with a reflective road sign; others fail to dip early enough for oncoming motorists or vehicles travelling ahead. Try them out for yourself and decide if you need these features. You may not have to buy them in the first instance (if they are optional or part of a package) or in most cases they can be disabled, which is annoying if you have not had the option of not paying for them.
Far too many people buy a vehicle that is larger than they need. This costs them money at the time of purchase, and every day thereafter in fuel and running costs.
If you need a vehicle for towing (such as a boat, caravan, horse float or even a trailer), consider just how often you actually use your car for towing. You might find it sensible to buy a smaller vehicle for everyday use and hire a larger vehicle when you actually need to tow.
Smaller cars are usually cheaper to buy and run, but they are also much easier to pilot around cities and suburbs.
On the other hand, larger vehicles are usually more comfortable on long trips. Look realistically at your usage and buy a car that suits.
All cars have blind spots but some are worse than others. How serious these blind spots are is often determined by your height and seating position. Can you see forward? Behind? To either side? Can you adjust the mirrors to minimise blind spots? Are there aids such as blind spot monitoring, rear cameras, reversing cameras, parking sensors and the like to minimise the risk?
When you test drive a vehicle, carefully evaluate how well you can see in all directions. This can only be done when you are seated in your usual driving position, with your mirrors properly adjusted.
Are there thick windscreen pillars or large exterior rear-view mirrors obstructing your vision? Thick pillars can effectively block vehicles from view, and large mirrors can make it difficult to see bollards or kerbs. Electronic aids will minimise the problem but no car can completely eliminate blind spots. Choose a car that causes you the least difficulty.
If you need to take a walker or wheelchair with you, make sure you can load and unload it without undue difficulty. If you regularly transport your grandchildren, is there room for a pram or their many other requirements? Can you easily fit and remove child seats (unlike parents, older drivers tend not to fit child seats and leave them in place)? If you carry children, are there sufficient child restraints and child restraint anchor points? Are child seat anchor points going to interfere with luggage space and access?
Consider your own physical limitations, and those of other people you need to transport. Can you adjust the seats to a comfortable position? Can you reach and operate the controls such as the steering wheel, pedals, emergency brake, seatbelts and others. Shorter drivers may find a real problem with cars that automatically move the seat rearwards (to facilitate entry and exit) when the engine is switched off. My mother was short, and in some cars, couldn’t reach the controls once the seat had moved backwards. Another thing to consider is whether you can reach the necessary controls when the seatbelt is done up. Or if you can easily access the seatbelt itself when it is behind your shoulder.
Earlier, we touched on the costs of owning and running a car.
There’s a lot more to the ownership costs than fuel and servicing, so investigate the total costs of ownership.
These days, many manufacturers offer capped or fixed price servicing. Some even offer free servicing for a specified period. Up front, you know what your costs will be, providing excellent peace of mind.
Warranties have also improved considerably over recent years, for which we can thank Kia who introduced a seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty. Others have followed, although usually not so generously. Five-year warranties are common, although many (the Europeans in particular) have stubbornly refused to extend their three-year warranties.
Roadside assist is often included in the package and can result in savings for many buyers (although auto association membership isn’t something to give up lightly, and roadside assist is usually part of the subscription).
Often overlooked in the ownership cost equation is depreciation. Some cars depreciate much more quickly than others and it’s worth checking before you sign on the dotted line. You can easily check out online the comparative retained value of various vehicles. It might not be a deal breaker, but it’s worth knowing.
What you need versus what you want
Many features on new cars will be tempting to buyers, only for them to realise, after paying the money, they aren’t as useful or essential as they may have at first thought. Others will have benefits to the over-50s that may not be immediately obvious.
Keyless entry and start (KESS)
Being able to get into the car and drive without taking the key out of your pocket is something we can live without, but if you have arthritis or restricted movement, this may make life easier for you. One of our bugbears with KESS is where to keep the key if it isn’t in the ignition.
Height adjustable seatbelts
If you’re short or prefer to drive with the seat in a low position, seatbelts that can’t be height adjusted can be uncomfortable. They might cut across your neck, or in a crash actually cause problems. Most cars these days have seatbelts that can be adjusted for height, but not all. Make sure the seatbelt sits properly and is comfortable, whether it is adjustable or not.
Tilt/reach adjustable steering wheel
Most modern cars now have steering wheels that can be adjusted for height, but not all can be adjusted for reach. Getting comfortable in the car is a vital part of driving safely. If the steering wheel cannot be adjusted for reach, you may need to move the seat further forward than you are comfortable with, or stretch your arms more than is advisable. Even some tilt adjustable steering wheels have insufficient adjustment to locate them where you want. And check that you can read the instruments when the wheel is in your preferred position.
We’re not sure this technology has been quite resolved as yet. Being able to operate controls by telling your car what to do sounds great. But, too often, the equipment misunderstands your command. We once tried to input an address into sat nav multiple times (it was the only way to input information) until we finally despaired and went back inside to find a street directory. And at a major new car launch, the demonstrator was unable to get the car to recognise the address of the company’s head office! Even attempts by manufacturers to make voice recognition work with the Australian accent have had only limited success.
High tech buttons versus rotary dials
One thing we really hate is trying to find a control, usually (but not only) on a touchscreen. Too often, you need to take your eyes off the road to locate the control. Then you have the problem of accurately hitting the button in a moving car (one of the worst is Audi’s touchpad on the console). A rotary dial is intuitive (clockwise for up, counter clockwise for down) and usually easy to find by touch. As for those virtual slider controls, the less said the better. Too many cars are fitted with small, fiddly, difficult to find and operate controls. If you have trouble with them when stationary, things will only get worse on the move.
Remote boot release
Not having to use a key to open the boot is a boon. But we’ve found remote boot releases on keys often don’t release the boot (especially those that release the boot without unlocking the other doors). Then there’s the “wave your foot under the bumper” idea. Sounds great in theory, until you have to balance on one foot (often while holding parcels) waving your foot fruitlessly in the air. And as mentioned earlier, powered tailgates are great for over-50s.
As we get older, our flexibility is compromised, including being able to turn the head. Reversing cameras are great for showing what’s behind, and often will show something you can’t see even with full neck rotation. Reversing cameras with indicator lines are even better, especially when combined with sensors. Front sensors are also worthwhile.
Dials you can read
As we age, our eyesight is affected. Often this is an issue with short and long vision. Of course, when you’re driving a car, you need long vision to see the road ahead and short vision to read the dials and instruments. Adjusting between the two can be a problem for the over-50s, so make sure the dials are clear and easy to read.
Don’t be rushed
Buying a car, new or used, is never an easy task, but for the over-50s, there are perhaps even more factors to be taken into account.
Take your time. Don’t be rushed into a decision. Ask questions and persist until you get answers.
And buy the car that suits you and your requirements.
This article first published as Finally, somebody acknowledges senior drivers buy carson www.seniordriveraus.com
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