Photo courtesy of AAA.

Photo courtesy of AAA.

As drivers age, simple vehicle adaptations such as pedal extensions, seat cushions and steering wheel covers can often make driving physically easier and reduce crash risk. But nearly 90% of senior drivers fail to take advantage of these inexpensive options, according to new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

AAA is urging seniors to consider making such modifications, especially since drivers 65 years and older are more than twice as likely as younger drivers to be killed when involved in a crash.

“While many seniors are considered to be safe drivers, they are also the most vulnerable,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Our research suggests that most senior drivers are not taking advantage of simple and inexpensive features like steering wheel covers that can greatly improve their safety and the safety of others on the road.”

The research represents the first phase in the AAA Foundation’s Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers (LongROAD) project. Researchers are creating a major senior driver database in hopes of better understanding the risks and transportation needs of the country’s aging population.

For this phase of the study, researchers investigated 12 vehicle adaptations and found that fewer than 9% of senior drivers reported using any of these devices in their vehicles. Some of the inexpensive devices that can be purchased and put to use in new or existing vehicles are:

Vehicle Devices

Potential Safety Impact

Cushions and seat pads

Improve line of sight and can help alleviate back or hip pain

Convex/multifaceted mirrors

Improve visibility and minimize blind spots

Pedal extensions

Help drivers obtain a safe distance from the steering wheel/air bag and optimize visibility

Steering wheel covers

Improve grip for drivers with arthritic hand joints

Hand Controls

Allow drivers to perform all vehicle maneuvers and functions without the use of lower extremities.

Source: AAA

Choosing the right features and working with a trained technician is imperative to safety behind the wheel, according to AAA. Of those drivers who have a device, almost 90% reported that they did not work with a trained professional to install the modification. Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) recommend that a trained professional oversee such modifications.

AAA also recommends that drivers consult with a trained technician to guide them in making adjustments to their vehicle.

“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.”

Vehicle adaptions also benefit seniors’ mental health by extending their time as an active driver. Previous research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that seniors who have stopped driving are almost two times more likely to suffer from depression and nearly five times more likely to enter a long-term care facility than those who remain behind the wheel.

In the LongROAD study, more than 70% of senior drivers had experienced health conditions that impact muscles and bones, such as arthritis, hip/knee replacement and joint pains. Some seniors in the study reduced their driving because of these conditions. The installation of certain devices such as steering wheel covers can help lessen the impact of arthritis. Additionally, larger mirrors and assistive devices on seats can help with limited neck mobility.

“It’s surprising that more seniors are not utilizing simple and inexpensive vehicle adaptations when you consider the large number who are dealing with muscle and joint conditions,” said Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety and advocacy. “Knowledge is power when it comes to extending time behind the wheel, and AAA is committed to providing seniors with the information they need to make sound decisions.”

AAA is promoting the report in partnership with the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) to support Older Driver Safety Awareness Week. AAA and AOTA worked in collaboration with the American Society on Aging and AARP to develop CarFit to help senior drivers take full advantage of the features and technologies in their vehicles. The community-based program allows trained professionals to conduct a 12-point check of a senior’s personal vehicle and make recommendations for needed adjustments or adaptations. Older drivers can sign up for an event online.

AAA also offers the Smart Features for Older Drivers tool, which can help senior drivers identify inexpensive devices and vehicle features that optimize their comfort and safety.