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  • Judy Diebolt

Car Features That Make Driving, Parking, and Getting Out Easier

For many older adults, one of the greatest fears that comes with age is the loss of independence. Few things symbolize the key to independence more than being able to drive to meet friends, go to appointments and run errands.

Now, thanks to developments in technology over the past five years, automakers are offering options that can keep seniors driving safer and longer.

To that end, the American Association of Retired Persons offers classes around Michigan to educate older drivers, titled AARP Smart Driver Tek.

At a recent class offered at The Helm, a senior center in Grosse Pointe Farms, AARP volunteer instructor Roger Doster told attendees that new options on cars address many concerns older drivers have. These new systems use cameras and motion sensors to give drivers a better sense of what’s coming at them on the road.

Doster said AARP recommends these options to seniors purchasing or leasing a new car:

  1. Night Vision: Infrared and thermal imaging technology (this is the technology used by Navy SEALs) lets drivers see several hundred yards down the road in darkness by displaying an image of the road and potential hazards on the car’s navigation screen.

  2. Pedestrian Detection: Thank the Navy's infrared technology again, this time for a system that acts as a second set of eyes on the road, scanning for objects in the car's path and sounding an alarm if anything is detected.

  3. Lane Departure Warning: A forward-facing camera keeps a virtual eye on road lane markers, sounding an alarm if the car crosses lanes. Some systems will automatically brake the car and bring it back into its lane.

  4. Blind Spot Warning: This is a monitor of the lanes next to yours; if you begin to steer into a lane that has a vehicle hidden in your blind spot, the system provides both a visual and audible alert.

  5. Rear and Top-View Cameras: Rear-view cameras have become popular with older drivers, as they don't require neck flexibility to safely reverse the car. Top-view cameras take the technology forward, giving a 360-degree virtual view from the vehicle while in motion.

  6. Self-Parking: Want to become an expert parallel parker with very little effort? The system controls steering and breaking to make sure your car is snug in its spot.

Judy Wilcox of Grosse Pointe came to the AARP class because she just leased a new car.

“I wanted to find out what was on the car and now that I know that, I also know what safety features are not on the car,” she said. “This will allow me to go back to the salesman and find out if I can get some safety features added to the car.”

Ruth Itchon, a retired nurse, who recently bought a Ford Flex, had attended the class once before. She said she came a second time because she “wants to be competent and know how to use what’s new.”

Her new car has an automatic self-parking feature that she’s been afraid to try. The class, she said, has given enough confidence to try it.

AARP also offers a two-day driver safety course that covers many issues including how medication affects your driving and new road signage that may be unfamiliar.

To find out when and where classes are offered go to:

Adding Safety Features to Your Car

But even if your car doesn’t have the latest features, you may be able to get some installed with affordable after-market products. Experts say because options such as a back-up camera are a big help when backing out of a parking spot or parking, which can be difficult when you’ve got stiffness or pain in your neck, shoulders, and back, they are worth considering.

Also helpful for those with pain or limited mobility in the hands, arms, and shoulders, or those who have trouble holding the wheel while steering, is an inexpensive knob that can give hands a break by modifying the grip.

Other accessibility accessories include:

• Pedal extenders which help older adults drive while sitting a safe distance from the steering wheel when they experience limited mobility or muscle weakness in their legs.

• Seatbelt reacher handles which help to buckle up without overextending shoulders.

• Swivel seats which make it easier to get in and out of the car without becoming unbalanced. Sit first, swing the legs second.

• The Stander Handy Bar which gives drivers something to push on with their left hand as they get in and out of the car. Some people might prefer to pull against the Stander Car Caddie for extra stability.

Consult your mechanic to see if these products, many of which may be purchased on Amazon, can be fitted to your car to give you more years of independence behind the wheel.

Judy Diebolt is a veteran Detroit journalist and former reporter and editor at The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.

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