The Coming Boom in Boomer-Friendly Transport

The baby boomers are aging. To ensure their safety and everyone else's, cars, highways, and public transportation need to adapt fast

The oldest baby boomers start turning 65 in less than three years, but car-crazed American society isn't ready, and neither are the boomers themselves.

Cars, highways, street signs, public transportation, and politics are all changing to accommodate an increase of roughly 20 million Americans over age 65, from 2004 to 2020.

Automakers are working to get ready. For instance, Nissan (NSANY) has an "aging suit" for its designers, with stiff joints to simulate restricted movement, a strap-on belly, feet with raised toes to create poor balance, and goggles to simulate poor eyesight. In an e-mail, Etsuhiro Watanabe, an associate chief designer at the Nissan Design Center, was careful to point out that Nissan is not designing a car specifically for old people. "The improved ergonomics will benefit drivers of all age groups, young and old included," he said.

In part to aid the aging driver, General Motors (GM) is adding high-tech features such as blind-spot monitoring and lane-departure warnings, both available on the 2008 Cadillac STS and DTS models. "GM recognizes the importance of this sizable demographic group in the U.S. and globally," said Dave Rand, executive director, global advanced vehicles, in a written presentation. In the longer run, GM is working on "vehicle-to-vehicle" communications, which could for instance warn a driver that cars in a line several cars ahead are applying their brakes. GM is also making more widespread use of simpler features like larger, more legible numbers and letters in its instrument panels, Rand said.

Loss of Night Vision

Experts say it's next to impossible to cite a specific age at which driving ability starts to suffer, but vision is consistently one of the first things to go, especially night vision, said Kent Milton, a semiretired spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.

"There is no generalizing about the problems that aging causes. An exception to that is vision—a change in reaction time and a change to the ability to resist glare," he said. Milton, 80, serves on a state task force to address safety issues for older drivers.

As a result of vision problems, many older drivers avoid driving after dark. High-tech features like infrared night vision could help. Night-vision cameras are available on some high-end luxury cars from Mercedes-Benz (DAI) and BMW (BMWG), but it's an expensive feature and needs to be more user-friendly. The Mercedes-Benz version presents a clear picture, but it's black and white. The BMW system detects heat, but turns pedestrians into ghostly, glowing figures that look like a photographic negative. As demand increases, future product generations need to be cheaper and easier to use.

Demand is also increasing for low-tech features that are already widely available, such as a ride height that's not too high and not too low, making it easy to get in and out; thicker steering wheels that arthritic hands can grab; and clearly marked buttons and knobs on the dashboard. In March, the American Automobile Assn. published such a list, called "Smart Features for Mature Drivers."

Adjustable Pedals

AAA gave high marks to crossover vehicles like the Hyundai Veracruz (, 5/14/07). It was the only vehicle out of 120 models rated by AAA that had all 20 of the organization's desired features, including adjustable pedals, to keep shorter drivers from sitting too close to the steering-wheel-mounted air bag.

Besides vehicles, American roads themselves need to change. That includes big projects like straighter curves and simpler intersections, but also quiet measures like standardizing a more legible typeface for street signs.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has endorsed a font for signs called "Clearview." The typeface increased the distance at which signs are legible for older drivers by 16%, and for all drivers by 12%, according to the FHWA. Eight states (Arizona, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia) have adopted Clearview font, and more are in the process. The FHWA also recommends that states adopt bigger signs than now required.

Ultimately, the elderly boom could also help light a fire under efforts to create "intelligent" highways and cars that can communicate automatically with each other, to help regulate traffic flow. GM, Daimler, and other carmakers have experimented with such systems. Nissan also has a pilot program in its home Kanagawa Prefecture outside Tokyo, where the street signs and traffic signals themselves can beam warnings to specially equipped cars, for instance to warn if another car is entering an intersection too fast, and from which direction.

Need a Ride

Public transportation will also experience much higher demand. People are conscious of the need to plan financially for retirement, but they often overlook the likelihood that sooner or later, they won't be able to drive, said Diane Wigle, chief of the Safety Countermeasures Div. of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

That's O.K. if you retire in a city with good, cheap public transportation like New York, she said at the Mar. 28 World Traffic Safety Symposium, at the New York Auto Show. But it's a problem for retirees in suburban or rural settings.

"This is a scary prospect for us," said Martin Pietrucha, an associate professor of civil engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He said at the New York symposium that Pennsylvania has the nation's highest percentage of rural elderly, who have virtually no other way to get around besides driving.

"If this is going to be growing by leaps and bounds in the future, that's a concern for us," he said.

Community groups like Ride Connection, based in Portland, Ore., are stepping in to fill the gap. Since 1988, the Ride Connection network has grown from providing just over 11,000 rides in its first year to more than 352,000 in the 2006-07 fiscal year, said James Uyeda, Development Manager. Another fast-growing group is OATS (Older Adult Transportation Service), based in Columbia, Mo.

License Renewal Tests

When and if older drivers should lose their licenses could be the stickiest issue of all, looming with the new wave of elderly drivers.

It's already a "live third-rail" political issue in California, said Steve Haskins, a spokesman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. In other words, like the electrified third rail in the New York subway system, it's deadly to touch it. Former Sixties activist and former California State Senator Tom Hayden ran into stiff opposition several years ago, when he suggested driving tests for older drivers, Haskins said. Hayden could not be reached for comment.

In one way, over-65 drivers are statistically good risks. Of all age groups, over-65 drivers have the lowest involvement in fatal crashes, at around 17 per 100,000 population, according to the NHTSA. That's less than half the rate of the riskiest group, 21-to-24-year-olds.

But over-65 drivers drive the fewest miles. Measured another way, per 100 million miles traveled, involvement in fatal crashes starts climbing for the over-65 group. Controlled for miles driven, the biggest at-risk group is drivers over 85. Novice drivers also create a spike at age 16, but not as high as the oldest drivers.

Helpful Stool Pigeons

California is inching toward a controversial three-tier system that could ultimately restrict or take away driver's licenses. Police, doctors, family members, or even neighbors would be able to file a report that in turn would initiate an official process of testing. California's action is spurred in part by a highly publicized case where an elderly driver killed 10 pedestrians when he plowed through the Santa Monica Farmers Market in 2003.

For now, no state appears to be mandating driver tests at a specific age, and NHTSA's Wigle said the federal agency has no plans to recommend any such testing.

"The trouble with mandatory testing at any age level is that you're paying money uselessly to test a lot of people who don't need it," said Milton of the California Highway Patrol. "I'm 80, and I drive, and I haven't had any problems.… Mandatory testing would pull in a lot of people who are doing perfectly well. The question is, how to isolate people who need to be tested?" he said.

Stiffer Rules

Florida, which expects an even bigger boom in its already large population of elderly drivers, requires drivers over age 79 to pass a vision test. In addition, regardless of age, Florida drivers can renew their licenses no more than twice in a row online or by mail. That compels drivers to report in person to renew their licenses, which gives DMV workers a chance to observe at least the most obvious signs of impairment. Florida also makes available a form for physicians, family members, or others to report poor driving.

"Your car is independence," Wigle said. Many people don't have a Plan B for when they stop driving, and families are often reluctant to tell elderly relatives they should stop.

The Hartford Insurance, which of course has a vested interest in safe driving, has a brochure on its Web site on this topic, called We Need to Talk, trying to help people get over this squeamishness.

"Families play a very big role," Wigle said. "It's a very tough conversation, one I never look forward to having. I know from personal experience," she said. Later, she said only half-jokingly: "Personally, my plan is to drive myself to my own funeral."

Check out the slide show to see 10 cars that are taking the lead in helping boomers think about driving in a different way.

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