Are you autoliterate?: What older people need to know about the new cars

We’ve all heard about the reduced skills of older drivers: We’re less flexible so we can’t swivel our necks to see backing up. Our reflexes are slower and we’re more likely to get in accidents–blah, blah. Still, it is the truth that we are no longer in shape to start careers as race car drivers.

But and however, a whole slew of safety and convenience features are now available in many cars with more due out later this year and in 2012. Not that a bad driver can now get away with stupid maneouvers, but these inventions can help all of us drive more safely and perhaps be less up tight behind the wheel.

Each car brand has its own name for these features and not all cars have all of them. You have to do your own detective work about brands and versions, but here’s a generic description of the features that appeal to this geezer:

Quick stop protection from rear-ending a car in slow city traffic: I tested this quick stop feature at a Volvo dealer. If the car is going 19 mph or less and it senses you are about to crash into another, it brakes and stops. No big jarring with this feature since it only works at low speeds and natch, you have a seat belt on. But a nifty way to avoid fender benders.

Backup cameras: Either on a separate screen or as part of the rear view mirror, these allow drivers to see clearly what’s behind as they back up. Actually, a great feature for all ages.

Back-up audio warnings: These beeps let a driver know how close he or she is to hitting another object. Accompanied by visual warnings on a screen in the dash. Same for forward motion.

Lane assist: This feature lets you know if you are straying out of your lane. Should stop the perpetual weavers who can’t seem to keep their vehicles between the lines.

Smart air bags: Not only are there more airbags on the newer cars—side, some knee bags and so forth—some manufacturers have sensors that tell the size and weight of the seat occupant and adjust the bags accordingly. Ford calls this an “occupant classification system”.

Navigation systems: Yeah,  you’ve probably had your portable Garmin giving directions forever, but I’ve hated ours sitting loose on the dash. (We should have secured it.) So cars with a built-in navigation screen seem safer and more convenient to me, though some say it’s silly to buy an expensive built-in nav system when you can just buy a much cheaper portable system. Whatever works to get you where you want to go, but older drivers who are feeling insecure about direction may enjoy having any talking nav system as a driving partner, especially one with a cute Australian accent, Cranky Pants’ current electronic love on the Garmin choice-of-voice list.

Electronic stability control: You know about anti-lock brakes and such, but the latest in safety engineering is electronic stability control or ESC. Each brand seems to have it own name for this feature. It prevents panic under-steering or over-steering and applies the brake to the appropriate wheel if a driver begins spinning or plowing.

Built-in Bluetooth: I don’t know of one older person who can make his or her portable Bluetooth work reliably in a car for cell phone calls. Maybe the built-in version will be better.

Seat belts that adjust to your height: What little old lady in driving shoes has not felt choked by a seat belt that only adjusted around the lap, but not for her height? Look up to the side of the car where the belt emerges above the head to see if yours is adjustable. This isn’t a deal breaker when it comes to picking out a car, but as someone who was hit so hard in the chest by a seatbelt in a collision that she later got a tumor (benign) where the belt cut into flesh, I would hate to think what a non-adjustable seatbelt could do to a small person’s throat in an accident.

Over-all safety concerns: You can still look to the testing done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration and the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety as well as articles in Consumer Reports on the behavior of various makes and models during crash tests. Here are the 2011 crash test results from the IIHS:

Fave Feature: The new Ford C-Max van—out later this year—has a rear hatch that will lift if you just wave a foot under the rear bumper. No hands! You do have to have the car key in your pocket. Here’s a video of the magic:

Other issues: Older adults contemplating new cars need to get up to speed on the green car developments: the industry is going hybrid. The Prius is the best-selling hybrid, but the number of clean and green offerings is growing. One way to keep up is to check out www.cleanfleetreport. Before you go totally electric,  remember that power outages are common and that the electricity comes from a power plant that could be coal or nuclear. I hate to depend on gas, but I hate to depend on the grid.

I want a car that is powered by the motion of its own wheels. Engineers who are present: Isn’t this possible? Or I’ll plug my car into my rooftop solar array or the little wind mill on the garage.

Now if only there were windmill and solar lobbyists with big bucks to bribe–I mean lobby—lawmakers.

Photo of Prius courtesy of Roger H. Goun/Flickr

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3 Responses to Are you autoliterate?: What older people need to know about the new cars

  1. John says:

    As usual, well done, informative, and cogent. One item missing from the list is a sensor which tells you if a car is coming at you from either direction as you are backing out of a parking space in a parking lot. Even if you are flexible enough to turn, your sight is often blocked by SUVs parked beside you, or cars with blacked out windows so you can’t see through them. I wish this would be generally available (other than Mercedes).

    • Mel Walsh says:

      John, what a wonderful feature. It’s what I’ve always wanted but didn’t know existed. I did visit a Mercedes dealer to listen to a salesperson tell about the car and he never even mentioned this. Thanks for telling us.
      Readers who think a safety tank Mercedes is beyond them should know that you can buy a good used Mercedes Class C hereabouts for around $15,000, but I expect the older cars would not have this gee-whiz feature.
      Thanks for your comment, John.

  2. Margaret says:

    Our new Kia Sorento has another safety feature – can’t remember its given name, but if it senses that an accident is about to happen – by wheels straying, or erratic steering or braking attempts – it automatically tightens the seat belts and moves the head restraints forward to just behind your head.

    It also has proportional air bags; not only do they evaluate the weight and size of the passengers, but it also factors in the speed of travel and releases the bags at sufficient velocity to protect you, but not at the automatic – and often bone-breaking – 200 mph, which has been the standard up to now.

    It also has a Hill Assist feature, which, if you are traveling at less than 20 mph downhill and are applying the brakes, automatically brakes for you, down to 5-10 mph, so you can concentrate on steering.

    Pretty nifty stuff.

    But we opted for the on-dash Garmin (under $300) instead of the in-dash nav system (an extra $2000, minimum.) Yeah, I don’t like loose stuff on the dash either, but I love $2000 more.

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