Especially in a rural state like Maine, a valid driver’s licence is key to independent living and taking part in routine activities, such as getting to medical appointments and haircuts, shopping for groceries and visiting with friends and family. While older drivers and their families fret about losing that independence as driving skills diminish with age, car manufacturers are busy developing technologies that can make it safer for Mainers to stay on the road well into their 70s, 80s and even longer.
“Permanently giving up the keys can have severe consequences for the health and mental well-being of older adults,” Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said in a recent news release. “New technologies and a focus on safe driving can help seniors remain behind the wheel for years to come.”
Based on recent research, the AAA Foundation identified six new safety technologies — three aimed at improving parking — as providing “high value for older adults” by reducing the risk of crashes and improving driver comfort.
— Forward collision warning with mitigation. This feature detects an impending collision with another vehicle, pedestrian, animal or other object in the road and automatically applies the brakes.
— Automatic crash notification. Emergency notification systems, such as OnStar, use built-in sensors and call-button features to connect with a live responder in the event of a collision, illness or other problem.
— Navigation assistance. GPS technology provides a map display and voiced directions, boosting driver confidence and reducing anxiety and confusion.
— Parking assistance with camera display. Cameras provide clear vision in every direction, lessening the chance of hitting an adjacent vehicle or other object while parking.
— Cross-traffic warning. Sensors alert driver to oncoming traffic when backing out of a parking space.
— Semi-autonomous parking assistance. This technology takes over steering and braking while moving the vehicle into a parallel or perpendicular parking space.
From padded dashboards, lap belts and power steering to airbags, cruise control and back-up beepers, car safety features have evolved steadily over the years, according to Jim Prescott, general sales manager at the Darling’s Honda Nissan Volvo dealership in Bangor.
And, he noted, consumers have met many of those developments with skepticism. But with time and refinement, he said, these and other features have been widely accepted.
“Initially there were concerns that the car was somehow running itself. Now drivers expect these features. Cruise control is as standard these days as air conditioning and power steering,” he said. And, he added, newer technologies already are attracting forward-looking buyers, including older drivers and their safety-minded families.
In addition to the AAA Foundation’s list, Prescott said older drivers are very accepting of “blind spot” technology that detects another car approaching in a passing lane and flashes a small warning light on the side-view mirror.
Other popular options include a sensor that automatically corrects steering if the vehicle strays out of its travel lane, adaptive cruise control that brakes automatically to maintain a set distance between vehicles and a transparent display that appears on the driver-side windshield, as on a teleprompter, to keep track of travel directions, speed limits and other vital information without the driver having to glance at various instrumentation.
These new safety technologies are not inexpensive, Prescott acknowledged — a fully loaded Volvo sport utility vehicle on his lot runs upward of $68,000. But similar features are available on many less pricey vehicle makes, he said, including Hondas, Subarus and Fords.
Changes you can make yourself
“Staying in your own home and living independently as you age is 100 percent tied to your ability to drive,” said Susan Poole, a 73-year-old volunteer from Holden who teaches a one-day course in safe driving techniques for AARP Maine. In addition to brushing up their on-road skills, participants age 55 and older typically earn a discount off their car insurance. Poole’s course costs $15 for AARP members, $20 for nonmembers and is offered through the Eastern Area Agency on Aging in Bangor.
According to Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles statistics, 950,580 people held a Maine Class C driving license in 2014. Of these, 125,705 were 70 years old or older — 56,192 men and 69,513 women. Older drivers live in every part of the state, but rural areas are likely to have a higher percentage of older drivers than urban areas.
Maine law requires that drivers have a vision test on the first license renewal after turning 40 years of age, at every second renewal after 40 and at every renewal after turning 62. Other than that, older drivers are subject to a complex set of provisions related to specific medical, emotional and cognitive disorders that apply to drivers of all ages. Review of an individual driver’s competency can be triggered by reporting from a medical professional, a law enforcement agency or a concerned citizen and is conducted by a medical advisory board within the bureau of motor vehicles.
Poole said there is no surefire way to predict at what age an individual’s driving skills will begin to deteriorate. But older drivers often make voluntary changes in their driving behaviors, she said, such as avoiding driving at night, in bad weather, in unfamiliar areas, in heavy traffic and on the highway. Other practical strategies include keeping more distance between vehicles to allow for slower reaction times and being extra disciplined about using lights and turn signals.
Poole said new vehicle safety technologies can seem daunting to older drivers, but she reminds her students that they have adapted to many changes over time.
“When we were 16, there were no turn signals: You rolled down the window and signaled with your arm,” she said. “There were no seat belts, no sideview mirrors, no pushbuttons to roll down a window, no little interior levers to open the gas cap or release the trunk latch.
“These [new safety features] will help you drive more safely and comfortably,” she said. “The trick is to find the ones you want to pay for. And then, don’t leave the dealership without learning to use them.”