The road can be a scary place for older drivers who have lost some reaction time, vision and confidence. It also poses a conundrum for their adult children, who may be in a battle of wills for the car keys.

If your parents are still on the road, it’s important to ensure their vehicle maximizes safety and comfort. Considerable set out to identify some specific safety features that can ease road stress and provide an added sense of security for older drivers. 

Cars to avoid

Sports cars and full-size SUVs have design features that are incompatible with the typical needs of older drivers.

Drivers in their 70s and older should probably avoid purchasing certain classes of cars entirely. Vehicles that are built for high performance (sports cars) or are extremely large (full-size SUVs and trucks) pack design features that are incompatible with the typical needs of older drivers. 

Specifically, these sorts of cars may be too low or high off the ground to enter and exit with ease. They can be hard to maneuver in tight spaces, and they can reach speeds and dominate the road in ways that don’t jive with an 80-something driver who’s using the car simply to drive to the supermarket for eggs and milk.  

While it’s obvious what they should not be driving, it may be less clear which features can actually make driving safer and less anxiety-producing for those same drivers. 

The blind side

Rich Ceppos, senior editor at Car and Driver, emphasized the importance of visibility. “I would say that, as drivers age and become less flexible, several active-safety features could be of elevated value to them. The more you can see from the driver’s seat — the more you’re aware of what’s around you — the safer you’re going to be as a driver.”

“The more you can see from the driver’s seat — the more you’re aware of what’s around you — the safer you’re going to be as a driver.”
Rich Ceppos
Car and Driver

And what can help with that issue?  

Ceppos recommends sensors that warn drivers of objects in their blind spots. “Side blind-zone alert makes it easier to know a car is lurking in that hard-to-see spot just over your shoulder, outside of your peripheral vision.”

Side blind-zone alert detects when a vehicle is approaching from another lane and alerts the driver via blinking notifications on the side or rear-view mirror. This alert can prevent a driver from merging into another car and can notify a driver of a fast-approaching car in another lane.

Back that thing up

Backing up is another maneuver that tests vision and reflexes, and another function with a technological solution: rear automatic emergency braking. 

According to Ceppos, “Rear automatic emergency braking is another feature that makes backing up safer. The car will bring itself to a stop if there’s an object or person behind it that you didn’t notice was there.”

Another feature that can help in a busy parking lot or city street is rear cross-traffic alert, which combines the functions of side blind-zone alert and rear automatic emergency braking. 

“Rear cross-traffic alert can give you warning that a car is approaching from the side as you back out of a spot in a crowded parking lot or out of a driveway, where visibility might be restricted,” Ceppos said.

Many of these features are already available in new vehicles, but some are not yet standard. Almost all cars now offer a rear camera, which makes it easier to see behind you while in reverse, and is a helpful tool for avoiding accidents. It’s a safe bet that all the mentioned features will be standard in the very near future.  

Learning to use the tools

It’s important to remember that technology isn’t enough. Drivers must understand the information that the technology is conveying, and process and respond to the information appropriately. 

Lauren Fix, an automotive expert in car care and education based in Lancaster, New York, believes that the technology is only helpful if it’s clearly and patiently explained to the driver. 

According to Fix, “Vehicles that offer technology that is not intuitive to most drivers will only cause frustration and not assist the driver, only distract them.

“Safety features are a fantastic way to keep older drivers safe. They won’t experience lane departure warning, blind spot detection and many others without someone taking the time and patience to explain it to them.

“These safety features can offer older drivers the best in new safety without intimidation.”