Zoomer-friendly vehicles

Richard Marr remembers his first car. It was a used Austin A40, bought shortly after the war, and it made the teen a star on his block.

“It didn’t go very fast, but it ran really well. And it was the cutest thing,” says Marr, who lives on Vancouver Island and still drives every day. “I think I would’ve had it to this day if my mother hadn’t messed it up when backing out of the garage.”

In the coming decades, a virtual grey grid-lock is expected to emerge on our roadways as Canadians work – and commute – into their 70s and 80s. Even now, debate over bumping the eligibility for Old Age Security from 65 to 67 has many seniors sweating their retirement or outright postponing it.

Traffic-injury research shows seniors account for the second-highest proportion of road deaths, behind only 15-to 24-year-olds. And based on kilometres driven, the Canada Safety Council reports older drivers have more collisions than any other age group.

But the transportation industry is working to ease the transition, from bloated fonts on street signs to car seats embedded with heart monitors and vehicles that practically drive themselves.

“If I became ill and someone said I couldn’t drive, it would be a major learning curve for me,” says Elizabeth Hamblett, 73, from Victoria. “I’ve had elderly [male] friends who’ve lost their licences and it was like they lost their manhood. They went downhill really rapidly after that.”

When her own time in the driver’s seat is up, Hamblett hopes she can “give up gracefully.” But for future generations of commuters that may not be required.

Darren Scott, an associate professor in the Transportation Research Lab at McMaster University in Ontario, says automation is among the options being explored. “We may see the driver become increasingly disassociated with the actual driving process. The car will just do the driving, based on sensory technology embedded inside it. Almost like science fiction.”

Google, for instance, has come out with a fleet of vehicles that can do 120 kilometres an hour, with no human involvement, on a busy public highway. BMW, General Motors, Mercedes and Toyota are working on vehicles that lever-age data and robotics to relieve drivers from having to actually drive.

Data from a national survey on time-use show that in 2005 urban seniors age 65 to 69 spent virtually the same amount of time driving per trip as 45-to 64-year-olds. Between 1992 and 2005, travel time per trip for older seniors (age 70 to 74) increased by almost 22 per cent – a change far greater than that experienced by their younger counterparts on the road.

McMaster University’s Antonio Páez says the seniors who continue commuting by choice aren’t likely a threat, as they tend to be physically able. But Canadians obligated to remain in the labour force, despite declines in their health and mobility, are cause for concern.

“For someone who is 75, can’t drive as they did before, is living in the suburbs, and working to make ends meet, there’s no easy fix,” says Páez, who studies travel behaviour.

To accommodate the silver sea change, recommendations set forth by highway administrators include more legible typefaces on signs (a font called Clearview, for instance, makes text visible to elder drivers from 16-per-cent farther away), more flashing green arrows at left turns, better pavement markings at inter-sections, roads that intersect at angles no less than 75 degrees and longer acceleration lanes for right turns onto high-speed roads.

Auto manufacturers are doing what they can to ensure seniors won’t have to change their driving habits solely because of declining health.

Ford, for example, is already testing technologies such as biometric driver’s seats, which use electrode-sensing equipment to monitor heart activity. It’s also developing remote services that will allow people to manage chronic illness from their cars, tracking everything from glucose levels to asthma risks, as well as placing younger engineers in “age suits” that allow them to experience driving as a senior might.

Other innovations expected to be standard on cars in the future include auto-braking, blind-spot alerts, back-up cameras and larger instrument panels.

Ford Motor Company’s “age suit” helps designers understand how hard some simple operations like buckling a seat belt or adjusting a rear-view mirror can be for an elderly customer.
Photograph by: Ford , handout