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May 2, 2014

News & Features

Comfort, safety features older drivers should look for

The Virginian-Pilot

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Clockwise from top left: a large trunk, thicker steering wheel, easy-to-read gauges and leather seats add to comfort for older drivers.

While many pundits would tell you that old age is a state of mind, your body will tell you differently. For some, driving becomes more difficult. But buying the right set of wheels for you — with the proper options — can make a huge difference in your ability to remain mobile. Here's what to look for in a new vehicle.

Size matters
Full-size cars can be tough to maneuver. Midsize cars have almost as much room, yet can be easier on gas and are no less safe. Government crash-test results are listed on a new car's price sticker.

Egress can be hampered by door openings that are too narrow at the bottom. Also, look for door sills that are closer to the ground, as they make entry and exit easier.

Mirrors and windows

Automatic dimming mirrors, both rear-view and side-view, help prevent glare at night. Dealer-installed tinted windows help keep the car cool, but older drivers may find them hard to see through in low light.

Trunk room, access
Look for trunks that have nooks and shopping bag hooks to easily stash items. Check the depth and the liftover height of the trunk to ensure that you can easily load it. If you commonly carry a bulky item, such as a wheelchair, bring it on the test drive to make sure it will fit and is easy to load.

On crossover SUVs and some luxury sedans, a power-operated tailgate or trunk lid makes accessing the trunk easier for those with limited upper-body strength or mobility.

Comfort factor

Choosing leather seats instead of cloth enhances ease of entry. Look for seats that are higher off the ground. The ideal seat height is between your mid-thigh and lower buttocks. Power height and lumbar support are worth considering.

Headrests should be high enough to curtail whiplash. Many vehicles have "active" headrests, which move up and forward during accidents.

A steering wheel that tilts and telescopes makes finding a safe driving position easier. Look for a thicker steering wheel, which is easier to grip. Also, some vehicles offer heated steering wheels, good for those with arthritis or Raynaud's phenomenon.

Easy does it

For shorter drivers, adjustable pedals — an uncommon option — are helpful. Make sure the gauges on the dash are large enough and have enough contrast to read easily. Large buttons are easier to activate while driving.

A dash-mounted push button used to start the car, rather than a traditional key, can be easier to use for those with arthritis. And, while not a necessity, heated seats are a real treat for aching bodies. Some luxury cars offer massaging seats.

Safety features

Anti-lock brakes and electronic brake-force distribution help in emergency maneuvers to ensure accident-free stops. Electronic stability control intercedes further to prevent rollovers by measuring vehicle metrics such as steering wheel angle, wheel speed, engine speed and more. ESC then employs a variety of measures to regain traction, including selectively applying brakes and reducing engine power.

Using the anti-lock brake system, traction control uses sensors to detect wheel spin while accelerating. The system then intervenes to assist in regaining traction.

Blind-spot alert uses a camera or radar to detect whether a vehicle is alongside your own and not visible from the driver's seat. The system warns the driver by flashing a small light in or next to the side-view mirror.

A radar signal is used to detect when your vehicle has crossed a road marking without activating a turn signal. The system alerts the driver by sounding a chime, or vibrating the driver's seat or steering wheel. Some systems go further, gently steering the vehicle back into the lane.

Collision warning alerts you if you get too close to a vehicle or object in front by flashing a red light and beeping. If you don't respond, the car or truck intervenes by applying the brakes.

A rear backup camera is helpful during parking maneuvers by showing what's behind your vehicle, on an instrument panel screen or in the rear-view mirror. A cross-traffic alert detects traffic and pedestrians about to pass behind your vehicle when the transmission is set in reverse.

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