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The Car Industry and the Senior Driver: Look Who's Paying Attention

by Joanne Brickman

The senior population is a powerful consumer force.  We possess 40 percent of the discretionary income in the U.S. and dominate spending in many consumer categories including automobiles. Statisticians estimate that one-third of all drivers were over 55 at the dawning of the year 2000.

     While nearly every car company recognizes the special demands of this driver, General Motors took a major step forward recently when they announced the formation of the GM Mobility Center.  The Center, says GM, is a comprehensive organization that will identify and implement changes that affect people with disabilities, as well as address issues affecting the growing population of people over 50 years of age.

      "General Motors must work with mature drivers and people with disabilities to form stronger relationships between engineering, manufacturing and sales," said John Gaydash, GM Mobility Center's new director. "For many years, various parts of GM have placed importance on these vital groups, now we will manage all of those activities as one cohesive group."

     But will they also address some of the stuff that causes driver irritability? Like, why are the buttons in a different place in every vehicle and why are they so hard to use in some cars?   No one needs the stress of trying to find the controls for the windshield wipers, high beams, windows or other parts in an unfamiliar car.  Many seniors are subjected to this annoyance when driving rental cars or test driving new vehicle candidates.

     Manufacturers tend to have the controls in the same place across their own car or truck lines, but they haven't made much effort to co-operate with each other so that they are in the same place in every vehicle, regardless of make.  It's about sharing information and that's not easy in an industry as highly competitive as the automotive business.

     Besides placing them in a standard place, radio and climate controls ought to be easy to reach and to operate.  A car with dozens of buttons the size of a pin located far down on the dash is not very user-friendly.

     And how about making gauges easier to read? Manufacturers have the technology to produce heads-up displays," which reflect fuel levels and other information from a semi-transparent screen coated onto the front windshield. But this technology is seen only on a few cars. Heads-up display is designed to spare older eyes from constantly switching between peering at the dash and watching the road. General Motors and some Japanese auto makers offer the feature in some of their models, but that's about it.

     Another thing.  Right side mirrors should be improved to give a more accurate reflection of where other cars are.  The hard-to-read-for-anyone warning about cars being closer than they appear could use a reality check.  An over-sized rear-view mirror may have its advantages for seeing what's happening with the grandkids in the back seat, but when it blocks the forward view, it's a hazard. Another view-blocker auto makers need to address is the brace between the front and rear doors, the B pillar, if you will.  It should be positioned so that it doesn't impede vision during over-the-shoulder checks.

     The goal should be to offer vehicles that reduce the stress of driving.  A comfortable, stress free driver is a safer driver.  Features like driver's seats that adjust up and down as well as forward and backward provide greater comfort.  Lumbar adjustments relieve aching muscles.  Heated seats not only bring comfort in cold climes, the heat eases joint and back pain that comes with growing older.

     Another feature older drivers may want to consider and manufacturers should attend to when marketing to the senior is the diameter of the steering wheel A fatter wheel is much easier to use for someone with arthritis, as they don't have to close their hands as tight.  Reduced pain makes for safer driving.

     There are other things that car manufacturers could and should do to make driving safer and more comfortable for those in their senior years.  Brake pedals should be a standard width and wide enough so feet wouldn't slip off them easily.  And how about including a permanent car phone capable of summoning roadside assistance 24 hours a day?  Features like General Motors OnStar and navigational systems in Acura, Mercedes Benz and other cars are excellent for help and information.  They should be in more vehicles.

     Hopefully, General Motors Mobility Center is the beginning of a long list of auto maker efforts to address the needs of the senior driver.

     And, hopefully, they'll all work together to attend to the small, irritating stuff, too.



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