Older Drivers Populating Highways at Great Speed

October 17, 2009/Steve Tackett

MOTOR MATTERS DOWN THE ROAD BY HERB SHULDINER

A recent United Nations study reveals that people over the age of 60 comprise the fastest growing demographic on the planet. In the developed world this segment is expected to increase in number by more than 50 percent over the next four decades; while in some corners of the world this aging population will triple.
That’s one of the reasons Volvo Car Corporation has launched a study of driving safety issues affecting the growing number of seniors on the road.
“Understanding the driver’s safety needs in the different stages of life is essential for us when designing our cars (for seniors),” says Thomas Broberg, a senior safety advisor at Volvo’s Safety Center in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Even though older drivers have fewer crashes, Broberg admits, they have more accidents at intersections. His research project will attempt to determine why this is the case — and if possible, redesign Volvo vehicles to lessen the incidence of such collisions.
“We are building up the knowledge it takes to design safety systems that can help make these situations safer (for seniors to navigate),” Broberg says.
Volvo is collaborating with the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute. Specifically, the researchers are focusing on whether older drivers have different visual search patterns while maneuvering through intersections.
Broberg’s team studied two groups of drivers: those over 75 years old and those 35 to 55 years old. Both groups were closely monitored as they navigated the same route through intersections, 4-way crossings with signal lights and traffic circles at identical speeds. The researchers measured neck flexibility of drivers in both groups. They concluded that older drivers have less flexible neck motion, as well as narrower fields of view.
In addition, monitoring equipment picked up differences in the areas of interest the drivers looked at while traveling through the test course, Broberg says. While the older drivers looked more at lines and markings on the road in order to position their vehicles in the traffic, younger drivers focused more on dynamic objects, such as other cars, which could represent a possible threat.
Volvo’s goal is to use the data collected from the project to develop new vehicle preventive safety and support systems for senior drivers. “The positive spin-off effect is that safety systems that take care of the special requirements of elderly drivers also will be useful for younger drivers,” Broberg says.
Volvo’s current parent company, Ford Motor Co., has independently studied the problems facing aging drivers. Peter Horbury, who recently returned to Volvo as design chief, studied the issue while he was chief of Ford’s North America design team. He was inspired to undertake this problem because he is of the baby boomer generation. The birth of the baby boomer generation started after World War II and they began hitting the age of 60 just a few years ago.
Horbury says that he is aware of increasing physical limitations of aging baby boomers. “The essence is to make the car easy to use without making a point of it,” he says. This includes getting into and out of a car — and also turning around to see behind the vehicle when in reverse.
“The trick is to design a car that is ergonomically friendly to older drivers, without making the vehicle look like an old person’s car,” Horbury says.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009