It is essential at any age, but particularly important for older adults, to operate a motor vehicle that “fits” them. As we age, we become more susceptible to injuries or death related to a crash event. Physical changes related to normal aging often require modifications to the way we drive. Changes in vision, flexibility, strength, range of motion and height may impact our comfort. Being able to optimize the drivers’ ability to visualize the road and to see other vehicles surrounding them is a critical factor in safety on the road. The ability to operate the vehicle itself in the safest manner possible requires that the driver and occupants be positioned within the vehicle properly.
It is very important for older adults to be positioned properly and comfortably in the vehicle in which they ride. There are a variety of pieces of adaptive equipment which can have a dramatic effect on safety and comfort. Some devices are simple and easily obtained and others require recommendation by a driver rehabilitation specialist.
If an older adult experiences difficulty reaching for or engaging the seatbelt, simple assistive devices are available to make this task easier. Items such as a seatbelt adjuster, handibar, or expanded mirrors are available either in home catalogs or at medical supply or auto parts stores. Other items that do not require a specialist to install are easy-locking seatbelts, visor extenders, steering wheel covers to improve grip, seat and back support cushions to relieve back pain or improve the ability to see over the steering wheel, keyless ignition, doors that automatically lock and open.
The National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) advocates and supports excellence in providing safe, reliable vehicles and modifications to enhance accessibility for people with special needs.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) addresses automotive safety issues for persons with disabilities on their website.
AAA recommends that aging drivers choose a vehicle based upon their specific needs. You can view AAA's Safe Features for Mature Drivers Recommendations on their website.
You can also view a list of vehicles and their options suitable for mature drivers on the AAA Vehicle List.
NHTSA plans to change the rating system for new cars to keep pace with rapidly changing technology and to better accommodate older drivers. We will post more information as it becomes available, in the meantime, you can learn more in this on-line article from Bloomberg News.
AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Florida National Older Driver Research and Training Center are helping older adults keep their safe driving ability for as long as possible. They have compiled a list of 30 safety features that should be on cars for older drivers. Among them are:
- Active head restraints that move forward to cushion the head if the car is hit from behind
- Adjustable pedals so petite people can safely reach them without being too close to airbags
- Power-operated seats
- Large knobs and buttons
- Four doors make entry and exit easier and the doors are usually not as heavy as a two-door vehicle
- Keyless entry
- Tilt steering allows the driver to find a safe distance from the front airbag
The Today Show has a video that demonstrates some of these safety features and you can view it on their website.
Family Car Guide has information on "Car Buying Tips for Savvy Older Drivers".
AARP has put together some driver safety features to consider when buying a car which can be on their website.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is an independent, nonprofit, scientific, and educational organization dedicated to reducing the losses---fatalities, injuries, and property damage---from crashes on the nation’s highways. It is wholly supported by auto insurance companies. You can find more information on the safety rating for particular vehicles and models on their website. They also produce “Status Reports” on select topics including top safety picks, motorcycles, bumpers, convertibles, and older drivers.
You can read an article on identifying vehicle features that improve safety and comfort of aging drivers and lifelong safe mobility research.
The Sun-Sentinel has also written an article, "What's a Good Car for Senior Drivers?" that could be helpful.
A community-based safety program called CarFit has been developed by AARP, AAA and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). Their goals are to: help aging drivers improve the “fit” of their vehicle for their safety and comfort, promote conversations among older adults and families about driving safety, and link adults with relevant local resources that can help them drive safer longer.
CarFit “checkups” include 12 items reviewed by trained volunteers. Items such as:
- Clear line of sight over the steering wheel
- Adequate distance from the front airbag
- Proper positioning of seat, usage of foot pedals and all mirrors
- Proper safety belt use and fit
AARP has detailed information on CarFit on their Driver Safety Program website where you can view the exam checklist and even videos walking you through a CarFit exam.
The Informed Eldercare has produced a helpful CarFit podcast.
Check out the Sun-Sentinel's "Seniors find one size does not fit all when it comes to safer cars" article and video.
National Center on Senior Transportation (NCST) has released an information brief on CarFit, an educational program designed to help older drivers improve how well their personal vehicles fit them and provide them with the opportunity to discuss driver safety and mobility. Download the brief from the NCST library.
Through a safety grant funded by the FDOT, CarFit has been adopted in Florida and training events for event coordinators and technicians and consumer events for older adults are being held all across the state.
Since the start of the safety grant in 2008 until September 2009, there have been 41 events across the state with 893 participants, 248 event coordinators and 151 technician volunteers were trained and 242 partner organizations have supported the CarFit events. You can find more information about the program or view upcoming events in your area on the CarFit website.
The Senior Resource Alliance and Carlin Rogers Consulting have prepared a report for the FDOT on "CarFit: Lessons Learned from Florida's Aging Road User Participants". Florida has been proactive in bringing this injury prevention program to communities and organizations throughout the State. This report reviews data from the national CarFit database and examines trends and lessons learned from the over 1400 participants in Florida CarFit events.
The primary responsibility of a driver is to operate a motor vehicle safely. The task of driving requires full attention and focus. Cell phone use can distract drivers from this task. The safest action is to refrain from using a cell phone while driving. Research has shown that use of a hands-free device (headset, speakerphone or other device) does not eliminate the distraction of the conversation. If a driver must make or take a call, the best strategy is to pull onto the shoulder of the road safely. Other distractions in the vehicle should be minimized as well. It is recommended that you carry an additional power source for a cellular phone in your vehicle, for use in case of emergency. Learn more about driver distractions on NHTSA's Driver Distractions website
Driver rehabilitation specialists, many of whom are also occupational therapists, have specialized training in identification of a driver’s strengths and the physical, visual and cognitive challenges presented by the task of operating a motor vehicle. They can evaluate an individual’s ability to safely operate a vehicle and make recommendations about ways to limit risks. Many of them are located in a healthcare setting in your community. More information on driver rehabilitation specialists can be found on the AOTA Driver Rehabilitation Specialists website.
There are vehicle modification items which require an assessment by an occupational therapist/driver rehabilitation specialist. This is to ensure proper installation and training on safe use. Examples of this include pedal extenders, panoramic mirrors, hand controls, seat lifts, steering devices, etc. AOTA maintains a nationwide database of driving programs and specialists.
The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists was established in 1977 to support professionals working in the field of driver education/driver training and transportation equipment modifications for persons with disabilities through education and information dissemination.
NPR has posted an article, "On the Road Again: Specialists Helping Aging Drivers" that you can either view or listen to the audio.
The rules for operating vehicles such as golf carts, scooters, etc. vary from state to state and among municipalities. All local and state traffic laws must be obeyed. No insurance is required unless mandated by local authorities. Similar regulations (Section are in place for low speed vehicles (LSV) such as vehicles must have adequate and functioning equipment. This includes adequate brakes; reliable steering; safe tires; rear view mirror; red reflectors (front and rear). Local governments may require inspection of LSV's. Section 316.2122, Florida Statutes, governs the operation of Low Speed Vehicles on certain roadways.
In Florida, golf carts can only be operated on local or county roads designated for such use. The posted speed limit must be 30 MPH or less. They cannot be used on sidewalks or state roads. A user can only cross a state road at a crossing designated for golf carts. Golf carts can only be used between sunrise and sunset. Section 316.212, Florida Statutes, governs the operation of golf carts on certain roadways.
FDOT has developed an educational tip sheet for Safely Operating Golf Carts on Designated Roadways.
Motorized wheelchairs or personal assistive mobility devices, as defined in Section 316.003(83), F.S. are governed by pedestrian laws. Section 316.2068, Florida Statutes, is the statute regulating their use.
When in a crosswalk, pedestrians and any individual using an adaptive device always have the right of way.
Special safety considerations when operating a motor home includes both in vehicle and on the road considerations. Examples include propane usage and storage, vehicle and content weight, tires, towing, electrical system, fire prevention and motor fuel options. You can find more information through these links:
Contact your local motor home dealer or the RVSafety.org website to see if training is available.
Proper and consistent use of safety belts is the most effective strategy to protect an occupant from crash related injuries. For an adult, the safety belt should be worn low and tight across the hips and not across the stomach. The shoulder belt should come over the collar bone, away from the neck and cross over the breastbone. It should fit snugly. It should never be worn behind the back because that does not effectively protect the wearer in the event of a crash.
In Florida, per Section 316.614(5), F.S. front seat passengers 18 years of age and older are required to use safety belts.
Driver and passenger airbags protect front seat occupants in the event of a front end collision. Side or “curtain” airbags offer protection in side impact collisions. A driver should position the seat at least 10 inches away from the steering wheel in order to maintain a safe distance from the airbag and to avoid injury if it deploys. The article “About Your Airbags” is available along with specific information on minimizing risk and injury for older drivers and passengers with airbags.
Head restraints help prevent your head from being snapped in a rear-end collision. It is important that the head restraint protects the middle of your head and not serve as a “resting” spot.
Anti-lock brakes help improve steering control during sudden stops.
It is important for the driver to always have a good view of the front, side, and rear of the vehicle. Vehicles equipped with side view mirrors on both sides of the car assist the driver to make safer lane changes. Outside mirrors should help eliminate “blind spots”.
Car and Driver has written an article and illustration on "How to Adjust Your Mirrors to Avoid Blind Spots" that can be helpful.
Navigation and communication systems, like OnStar or other global positioning systems add a level of safety and security to an automobile.
Clear thinking and prior consideration is critical if you are in the situation of being in a vehicle that leaves the highway and ends up in water. Wearing your seatbelt is, as always, a protective factor, to prevent injury during the crash event. You can access a video and text that suggests several actions that you can take to escape safely on the: Florida Highway Patrol - Worst Nightmare website.
It is critically important to have every occupant in a vehicle use a restraint. The proper child safety seat depends on the child’s age and height. Only children over age 8 may use the vehicle’s seat belt, as the vehicle equipment is designed to protect adults.
Florida law (Section 316.613, F.S.) requires all children age 5 or younger to use an approved child restraint device while riding in a motor vehicle. For safety reasons, all children 12 and under should ride in the back seat of a vehicle. You can learn more safety information about traveling with children on the following links:
Infants from 0-1 year should be placed in a rear facing seat and be positioned in the back seat. The duration is dependent upon manufacturer recommendations for a particular seat. At a minimum, children should be in a rear facing seat until age 1 and 20 lbs. Forward facing safety seats are recommended until the child reaches the upper weight or height limit (usually age 4 and 40 pounds) and the child should always be in the rear seat.
Booster seats are appropriate until the vehicle seat belt fits properly, usually at age 8 or when a child reaches 4”9” tall.
Proper installation of a child safety seat is critically important. To locate a Florida Occupant Protection Specialist who can help you install a child’s seat properly or to obtain a low cost safety seat information on the Child Passenger Safety and Occupant Protection website.