Few senior drivers pursue simple vehicle modifications to make driving easier

Something as simple as a seat cushion can help make driving safer and easier for older motorists. But recent research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that few seniors pursue these types of vehicle modifications.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is running a long term in-depth study called LongROAD, for Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers. A total of 2,990 drivers between the ages of 65 and 79 are taking part.

Of this group, only 8.96 percent said they have made at least one aftermarket vehicle modification intended to assist with their driving. Driver seat cushions, which can easily be added to alleviate back or hip pain and improve line of sight, were the most popular, utilized by 44.8 percent of study participants who made a modification. Convex or multifaceted mirrors, which help to improve visibility and minimize blind spots, were used by 38.8 percent of study participants who modified their vehicle.

Other modifications were less popular. Of those who made an aftermarket modification to their vehicle, only 6 percent added seat belt extensions. Other less common modifications included upper body support (4.8 percent), push button ignition (3 percent), steering wheel modification (2.6 percent), custom armrests (1.1 percent), pedal extensions (1.1 percent), hand controls (0.4 percent), and a left foot throttle (0.4 percent).

AAA says that while seniors tend to be safer drivers than younger motorists, they are also twice as likely to be killed when they are involved in a crash. The organization says aftermarket modifications can help reduce seniors' risk of a crash and extend the time they are able to keep driving.

"When an ache or pain begins hindering driving ability, many older drivers are able to continue driving safely after making a few adjustments," said Elin Schold Davis, project coordinator of the American Occupational Therapy Association's Older Driver Initiative. "Occupational therapy practitioners trained in driving rehabilitation are especially valuable in connecting the dots between medical challenges that can affect driving and the appropriate equipment and adaptations needed to remain safely independent in the vehicle."

In addition to cushions and mirrors, AAA says steering wheel covers can improve grip for drivers who suffer from arthritis. Pedal extensions keep drivers a safe distance from the steering wheel and improve visibility, while hand controls let a driver control vehicle functions without using their lower extremities.

Few of the study participants who added an aftermarket modification other than cushions consulted with a trained professional to do so. Eighty-three percent said they taught themselves how to use the modification.

The report also looked at the use and perception of in-vehicle technologies among older drivers. Fifty-seven percent said they had at least one advanced technology in their vehicle, and the average respondent had two.

Integrated Bluetooth was the most common feature, present in 47.4 percent of participants' vehicles. A total of 40.1 percent had back-up or parking assist, along with 27.7 percent with navigation assistance, 19.6 percent with voice control, 10.5 percent with in-vehicle concierge, and 10.1 percent with blind spot warning. Fewer than 10 percent had safety technologies such as adaptive cruise control, cross traffic detection, emergency response, forward collision warning, or lane departure warning.

Drivers were most impressed with the navigation assistance and blind spot warning technologies, with 96.6 percent and 95 percent, respectively, agreeing that it made them a safer driver. Eighty-seven percent of those whose vehicles had lane departure warning technology thought it made them a safer driver, along with 86.9 percent of those with forward collision warning and 84.6 percent of those with back-up or parking assist.

A total of 43.3 percent of respondents said they always use the available technology in their vehicle, but one in four—24.9 percent—said they never use it. Another 12.1 percent said the technology is rarely used, while 10.4 percent said they sometimes use it and 7.5 percent said it is often used.

Nearly half of all respondents—48.9 percent—said they learned how to use the technology on their own. Another 19.8 percent were taught how to use it at the dealership, 13.2 percent said they never learned how to use it, and 11.8 percent consulted the owner's manual.

The participants in the LongROAD study answered survey questions between July 2015 and March 2017.

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