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Status Report, Vol. 36, No. 8 | SPECIAL ISSUE: OLDER DRIVERS | September 8, 2001 Subscribe

Vehicle design changes might keep seniors in cars longer and safer

The starting point to improving vehicle safety for older drivers is to enhance occupant protection. "Fortunately there are some newer technologies that promise to offer older occupants better protection," says Institute president Brian O'Neill.

Belt force limiters

Already available in many new cars, force limiters are intended to reduce the risk of rib fractures caused by shoulder belt forces, a kind of injury that's much more likely among older people. Mechanical force limiters play out the belt when the force levels exceed a certain threshold. This allows an occupant to move forward more than would be possible with a standard safety belt system, but the airbag on the driver side (an essential feature for force limiting) should prevent this movement from resulting in a head impact with the steering wheel.

Improved safety belt systems

Automakers are developing new types of safety belts that could help distribute forces across more of the body. Ford, Volvo, and TRW are joining to develop two versions of a four-point safety belt. Saab and the Lear Corporation also have prototypes. An issue is user acceptance. "With current safety belt designs, some older people have a hard time reaching behind them to grab the belt," O'Neill notes. "This could be a problem with some of the new safety belts as well, depending on how they're designed."

Advanced airbag technology

A driver or occupant identifier could be used to let a vehicle's airbag control module know when an older occupant is in the vehicle. Then the airbag would inflate with less force. Auto manufacturers also are exploring some entirely new airbag-like devices including inflatable neck collars, belts, and knee restraints that could benefit more fragile occupants, including older people. But devices like these are in the conceptual phases. They aren't yet on the market.

Vehicle ergonomics

In the meantime, some companies are tackling the issue of ergonomics. At Ford, engineers have been using a "third age suit" for insight about the effects of aging. The suit approximates an older person's diminished vision, range of motion, and sense of touch. The first car to be developed using the suit is the Focus, which comes equipped with features such as larger controls and nonreflective interior surfaces to reduce glare. Lear has designed a concept car, the TransG, around the needs of mature drivers. The car includes powered seats that swivel out for easier access, high-contrast displays, and larger controls. New safety features also are included — four-point belts, air curtains and inflatable head/neck collars, and cushion restraints in the seats to keep people from sliding underneath belts in a crash.

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