When Cecil Britton, a retired Lockheed engineer, considered buying a new car this year, he wanted one that would help him drive more easily and more safely.
“I’m still in pretty good shape,” says Britton, 79, whose previous cars included a 2006 Honda Odyssey and a 2015 Accord. “But I noticed that when I’d get in my Odyssey I wasn’t able to back it up and look to see things behind me. My neck doesn’t turn as well as it used to, and my peripheral vision is not as good as it used to be, either.”
Britton is in good company. There have never been so many senior drivers on the roads as there are today. And their numbers are growing: in 2015, there were 50 percent more drivers over age 65 than there were in 1999, according to the Federal Highway Administration .
With these large numbers comes an increased need for vehicles that make driving easier while keeping seniors – and other people on America’s roads – safe. The good news is cars have never been safer than they are today. The bad news is with so many cars on the market, the process of finding the right one can be daunting.
Here are 8 safety factors seniors may consider when buying a new (or nearly new) car.
Consult IIHS’s “Safest Cars” Lists
Of all the best lists, there’s only one you need to consult when it comes to safety and that’s the “Top Safety Picks” list the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety puts out each year. Of the more than 350 new cars that arrive on the market each year, the IIHS awards only about 59 of them its “Top Safety Pick+” award, according to Perry Stern, editor-in-chief of Automotive Content Experience .
In fact, the IIHS does such a thorough job testing and assessing car safety that many media organizations base their “Safest Cars Lists” on its data. These include Forbes, CNN Money, US News and World Report and Stern’s website.
What makes IIHS’s report interesting is it doesn’t just look at front crash test results because, as Stern points out, “there are few cars that don’t do well in crash tests anymore.” They also heavily consider car safety technology, which is something that’s relatively new in the past decade.
Know Current Safety Technologies Available
If you haven’t bought a new car in the past decade, you may not be aware of just how far car safety technology has come. And many of the technologies available are uniquely suited for seniors and their needs.
Take Britton, for example. He loved his Odyssey but had a hard time maneuvering it, so he downgraded to the Accord. But when he needed a bigger car than the Accord to accommodate his wife Belle’s mobility scooter, he was pleasantly surprised to find the 2018 version of his beloved Odyssey was vastly improved. So he bought one.
His new minivan, like many vehicles these days, comes equipped with safety features that make driving much easier. The car warns him when he drifts from a lane, it has cameras that show where he’s backing up. The side mirrors automatically rotate downward when he puts the car in reverse. It has a brake-locking system so if he accidently lifts his foot while stopped in traffic, he won’t rear-end the car in front of him. It will even brake for him if he’s about to get into a collision.
“It’s really got everything you can think of. You have to try to have an accident almost,” says Britton, who laughs and adds that he’s not a paid spokesman for Honda.
Studies Show Warning Systems Save Lives
So do all these bells and whistles really work? They do.
- If all passenger vehicles had been equipped with lane departure warning systems in 2015, more than 55,000 injuries would have been prevented.
- Front crash prevention with autobrake cuts the rate of front-to-rear crashes in half.
- Collision avoidance technology cuts the rates of injury crashes by 21 percent.
Safety Features are Usually “Extras”
Most features on the safest cars are not standard in the base price and have to be added on, usually in bundled packages, says Stern. While these packages can cost $1800 and up, they aren’t offered only on high-end models. You can get an affordable car, like a Hyundai or a Kia, loaded up with safety features for around $20,000.
And if you really want to save, you can buy a pre-owned or used car for a fraction of a new-car price.
Airbags Have Changed Dramatically
Another reason seniors may consider upgrading to a new car is for the airbag protection. Almost all new cars have not just front airbags, but side, knee and rollover airbags, as well. SUVs may come with airbag curtains.
Yes, the Safest Cars are Bigger
It’s not a myth that bigger cars offer more protection than smaller cars, says Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications at the IIHS.
“But you don’t have to buy a tank,” says Rader who points out that the death rate for small SUVs is about half that of small cars for a simple reason — they weigh more.
“Our advice is to avoid small cars and comparison shop among vehicles with top safety ratings,” he says.
There’s a Good Chance You’re Not Sitting in Your Car Properly
The people at CarFit, a free program sponsored by AAA and AARP, use a 12-step plan to help seniors fit in their cars better. They find that many of the seniors they evaluate sit too close to the steering wheel (59 percent of seniors make this mistake), have improper side mirror adjustment (32 percent) and are sitting at the wrong seat height (21 percent).
They hold community events all over the country and will adjust seniors for free (learn more at CarFit.org), but in the meantime they urge seniors to remember to sit back so that there’s at least 10 inches from breastbone to steering wheel.
Too Many Distractions?
Another thing to consider with a new car is if it has too many bells and whistles and too many distractions, which can also be a safety hazard. Britton’s new Odyssey, for example, seats 8, and includes a TV “behind my head” and a microphone to speak to people in the back, though the only thing back there is the mobility scooter.
It also has a giant screen to the right of his shoulder, which includes “everything under the sun that you can think of.”
It might be a bit much, he admits, for someone of his generation.
photo credit: OSX (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons