What Older Drivers Need to Know About New Car Safety Features

Safety Tech For Older Drivers

New car technology is designed to keep us safer – and the statistics say it does.

But all that technology can be overwhelming. Especially to a senior like me.

My steel gray 2012 Toyota Camry is ready for an upgrade. Snazzy new colors of automotive paint catch my eye as I’m road tripping. So do side-view mirror blind-spot warning lights — hints of new technologies in the other vehicles.

A pretty new color is easy to figure out as I anticipate buying a new car. New car safety tech is harder to understand!  Since I’m turning 70 soon, I want to figure out which features will make me safer and which will confuse me — causing behind-the-wheel anxiety.

Read more about the safety benefits to buying a new car.

Is There a Downside to All of That New Car Tech?

There’s another worry too. If I’m a whiz with the tech, will I lose my paying-attention edge? Everybody advises seniors to keep our brains active; might the automatic features slow me down cognitively?

Designers say the point of safety technology is helping a driver, not taking over. Assistive is the word automakers use, versus fully automated. Maybe my brain will keep working in the driver’s seat.

Buying new car technology is different from asking the grandkids to program something digital. I’ll be the driver of this new car, and I need to be as confident with the new tech as I am without it.

That’s why I set out to research auto options and how they might match (or challenge) my abilities.

Infiniti Model Names

Driver information displays between the gauges; this screen shows the safety features that are active. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Oh My! The Acronyms To Learn

The first challenge in the new world of tech-savvy vehicles: Learning little groups of capital letters. Get familiar with these before vehicle shopping.

  • FCW Forward-collision warning
  • AEB Automatic emergency braking
  • ACC Adaptive cruise control
  • BSW Blind spot warning
  • LDW Lane-departure warning
  • LKA Lane-keeping assist
  • RCTW Rear cross-traffic warning

But that’s not all. There are 30 safety features listed and explained on My Car Does What, a public service campaign of the National Safety Council, which partners with the University of Iowa.

New Car Technology Can Be Overwhelming, Especially To People Who Are Less Tech-Savvy. Here'S Everything You Need To Know About New Car Safety Features Before You Head Out To Buy A New Car!

Help May Be On The Way

The auto industry understands my hesitancy for too much change. As a result, the chair of the Georgia Automobile Dealers Association, Jay Prince, says the industry is launching a new career path: Delivery Specialist. That’s the person who will teach buyers how to use all of these new features. That may even include a clinic 30 days later to answer all of the new questions that arise after the first few weeks driving a new tech-savvy car.

Considering the fact I needed help syncing Bluetooth with my phone in the 2012 car, I know I will ask for person-to-person education with my 2018 vehicle.

Read more about safety features you should have in your new car here.

Here’s What All That New Car Tech Does For Older Drivers

I’m determined to understand what each feature might do for me before girding up to deal with sales teams. Homework helps me practice the new car tech.

Forward Collision Warning

If something’s directly in the path of my car, this feature gives a visual prompt, or an audible and sometimes a tactile alert. Top safety ratings will not be given to vehicles without this, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Guess I’ll have it.

Satisfied users in a Consumer Reports survey say their FCW noticed highway traffic slowing before they did. Skeptical users complain about false alerts. Either way, it’s still up to the driver to hit the brakes and stop the car.

Automatic Emergency Braking

This stop-the-car safety feature comes in low speed and high speed versions so I guess I should examine my reaction times at both! Some users say “Hallelujah.  The car was slowing before I moved my foot toward the brake.” I’m wondering about the sudden jolt from the AEB.

Astonishment at the pressure and the smoky powder in the air was my reaction to an air bag inflating. Who knew? That’s why I wonder about the force of automatic braking.

Adaptive Cruise Control

Ease the stress of paying close attention is a happy result some drivers in the Consumer Reports study attribute to this safety feature. It shows a vehicle using cruise control to keep a safe distance when the vehicle in front reduces speed. Others grumble a bit about resume speed not being quick enough with ACC.

My husband complains when I slow down because of tail lights two cars ahead. With this feature he can blame the car and not me! Safety tech is good for marriage, right?

Blind Spot Warning

Side mirror alerts win rave reviews from every driver I questioned about liking their new cars.  Nobody seems to approve of warnings on the center console. That means it’s important to think about where you look as you drive when purchasing this safety feature. Audible and tactile warnings are possible, too, with BSW.

I am thrilled to know when the over-the-shoulder quick glance isn’t necessary because I know there’s another vehicle there (but it’s still good exercise).

Lane Departure Warning

Jiggle my thigh, please, if I ever drift left or right. I’d prefer that to a beep. Suits me also that LDW safety technology will actually move the steering wheel or even brake if I veer into another lane. That’s LKA, or Lane-Keeping Assist. Thank goodness it does not activate when I use my turn signal.

Wonder if this safety-tech feature will shape new habits in those who do not use their turn signals? Hope so.

Toyota Camry

Buttons (l-r: blind spot monitors, traction control, lane departure warning and forward collision warning) allow drivers to turn car safety features on and off. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Lane Keeping Assist

Surely you and I swerve widely to give bike riders safe space in those narrow lanes hugging the curb. My friends who pedal 40 miles every Sunday afternoon tell me the LKA feature can also adjust the driver back — scaring the beejesus out of everybody.

Rear Cross Traffic Warning

Lots of people already have back-up cameras and next year they’ll be mandatory in new cars. But who knows about RCTW – rear cross-traffic warnings? They’re for something out of back-up camera range but approaching. Strikes me as worthy of an audible warning with visual and tactile alerts too.  I’d add automatic braking.

Car Safety Features For Older Drivers

How much information is too much with new car tech? All this tech adds up to let the car park itself, as in this screen prompt. Photo: Christine Tibbetts

When is it time to give up the car keys? 

Cutting-Edge New Car Tech Decided. What Else?

The ringtones on our phones are versatile, and doorbells on our houses have options. I’d like to control the sound of clicking the locks on or off. Some are obnoxious, and thankfully may cars allow you to turn the noises off (ask at the dealership).

Headlight design is tech-based so maybe I should be figuring out if seven decades of seeing would be better supported with high-intensity discharge lights. Brighter white light versus routine halogen yellow light. This means it’s important to seniors to take a test drive at night.

And when you’re shopping, ask about yet another acronym, NVA. That’s Night Vision Assist, thermal imaging cameras that see further down the road than I do.

Safety Tech For Older Drivers

A backup camera is an important car safety feature.

Can I Buy Just A Couple Of Car Safety Features?

Some of these features may become law–perhaps. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says rear-end crashes are cut by 27 percent when a vehicle has forward-collision warning and by 50 percent with automatic emergency braking. And starting in May 2018, back-up cameras will be mandatory, standard equipment on new cars.

It’s tempting to wait for other safety-feature requirements instead of making my own decisions. Many brands are making this decision a non-event: Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Hyundai have made these suites of technology standard on most or all models. Mazda, Chevrolet, Buick, Dodge, Chrysler and Ford add certain features standard. And with many cars, if you want the basic comforts like leather seating, you get safety tech too.

Figuring out which safety features we must have/might choose to buy or have to take as a bundle can be a challenge. Luxury lines tend to be the first to introduce new safety tech and often, these features are standard.

Observing Older Drivers’ Reactions To Car Safety Features 

“Most of the people asking about these new technologies are in the 55-plus category,” says Alex Epstein, senior director of Digital Strategy and Content for the National Safety Council, “not the younger demographic.”

That’s why his team developed a series of videos to help drivers like me know what’s what. Here’s a sample.

Warn Me In A Way I’ll Listen

Could be my new car technology will think it has my attention …. but won’t. That’s certainly true with the scrolling information all over my television screen. Or Facebook Messenger messages I rarely notice because I notice e-mail more readily.

Will I see a flashing alert on the console or dashboard screen if I’m watching the road? Doubtful for me.

Will I notice a jiggle under my left thigh (a haptic alert) if that’s the alert for veering out of my lane? I think so.

Will I pay more attention to side rear-view mirrors just because they see the blind spots?

So many questions about my own acceptance of these alerts are holding me back, I fear.

When my daughter-in-law in Georgia told me about a safety feature on her son’s new car in Oregon, I found comfort: Heads Up Display known as HUD.

This means visual alerts will be just barely below my field of vision in the windshield, above the steering wheel, instead of elsewhere (which feel like all over the place to me.)  Eyes on the road seems smart (Mazda puts this feature in all its models).

Tech For Older Drivers

Are sounds and jiggles better than taking your eyes off the road? Photo: Christine Tibbetts

Touch Me, Don’t Beep

Haptic feedback might be what I need.  Never knew that word before meeting smart cars. Haptic means touch, not sound.

Little motors that vibrate can discretely alert the driver instead of beeps that alarm the passengers. New feelings under my thigh sounds appealingly edgy. Just hope I won’t giggle instead of paying proper attention to the borders of my lane.

Some models have little motors in the steering wheel, too, to tease – or alert —  my palms and fingers. Luxury brands like Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac like this technology.

Gotta consider the beeps too and how long they should blare. Car safety-feature polls quote people saying more than one second is too annoying. I’m thinking about the sound of weather alerts or Amber Alerts on televisions and radios; those are long and loud, and important.

Radar Of My Own

Curious to think about having my own radar system, and lasers too, since those combine with cameras all around the car and in the windshield and mirrors to shape new safety.

I’m wondering about more expenses to replace this advanced technology glass…or any of the tech. Worth the safety, but if it will save me an insurance deductible or two and keep my rates low, worth adding to the budget, too.

Christine Tibbetts bought her first car after college graduation. Now she’s ready to graduate to the newest model packed... More about Christine Tibbetts