Compensating for errors with high tech

Many experts advocate the use and further development of assistance systems to improve road safety for senior citizens. Because these systems – in addition to numerous other features or vehicle configurations – can compensate for age-related deficits and contribute to older drivers being involved in car accidents less often or even being the main culprit. Technological support also protects seniors as pedestrians or cyclists.

Driving assistance systems

Less vision, poorer hearing, slower reactions, and possibly limited mobility to boot: The physical conditions for safe participation in road traffic do not generally improve with age. Declining performance as a result of biological aging processes and illnesses is also reflected in accident figures, among other things. Take Germany, for example: according to the Federal Statistical Office, "only" just under 14 percent of drivers involved in car accidents with personal injury were at least 65 years old in 2019. However, if such older drivers were involved in accidents, they were mainly to blame in around 68 percent of cases. Among drivers aged at least 75, three out of four involved in an accident were blamed for the accident. As explained in the chapter on people, the most common driving errors made by senior citizens were disregarding the right of way, errors when turning, reversing or driving in and out of the vehicle, and distance errors.

In addition to changes in driving behavior, such as avoiding roads or times with high traffic density, unfavorable weather conditions, driving in twilight or darkness, or more cautious and slower driving, as well as infrastructural measures, the road safety of older drivers in particular can also be increased by equipping vehicles with assistance, information and comfort systems that are more suitable for senior citizens. The starting points with which the driving-relevant performance changes are countered can be roughly assigned to the areas of active and passive safety, operation, comfort and driving, although the intersection here is very large and a precise delimitation of the individual features or aids is rarely possible.


In principle, the steadily growing number of seniors driving their own cars and their willingness to purchase "senior-friendly" vehicles to maintain their own mobility make this group, which is financially strong in many countries, very interesting for the automotive industry. Although none of the major manufacturers offers models explicitly designated as "cars for senior citizens", the market is served by appropriate designs in combination with selected comfort and safety systems. The advantage of this is that there is no stigmatization of vehicle models or users, and at the same time the benefits accrue to all age groups.

In terms of safety, direct and indirect vision, driver assistance systems and passive safety elements play a key role. The less the direct view from the driver's seat is restricted by wide pillars or windows that are too small, the less physical restrictions in the area of the upper body and cervical spine or a reduced field of vision will have an impact. The windshield in particular must meet a number of criteria. Reflections from the dashboard or other vehicle components must be minimized in a wide range of lighting conditions by the arrangement of the components in relation to one another and the choice of materials. The wiping field covered by the windshield wipers must be designed in such a way that no significant "widening" of the A-pillars occurs during rain or, in particular, snowfall. A good view of traffic lights must be possible without major contortions in all seat adjustment positions due to the arrangement of the seat in relation to the windshield and, above all, the positioning of the interior mirror and the sensor/camera systems often installed in this area. Large and less distorting rearview mirrors enable faster detection of traffic behind and help compensate for inadequacies in shoulder vision, even if they cannot replace it. The interior design must help to minimize the view by means of interior mirrors through the rear window.

A tidy cockpit, clear and easy-to-read instruments and a clear, unambiguously structured user interface make a significant contribution to reducing the burden on drivers and thus ensure safety and well-being. displays and display elements must have a high-contrast design in all lighting conditions. Numbers and other characters or symbols must be large enough and easily recognizable even if only glanced at briefly. Essential functions used while driving, such as controlling the lights and windshield wipers, adjusting the heating and ventilation, or regulating the radio, must be easy to operate without looking and with haptic feedback. One-button operation or touchscreens guided by on-screen menus quickly lead to overtaxing or dangerous distraction.

In this context, it is worth recalling a ruling by the Karlsruhe Higher Regional Court in the spring of 2020, according to which touchscreens permanently installed in the vehicle by the manufacturer are also considered electronic devices in Germany, similar to smartphones, which may only be operated by hand while driving if "a brief glance at the device adapted to the road, traffic, visibility and weather conditions" is sufficient for this purpose. The ruling relates to an accident caused by the driver attempting to adjust the windshield wiper interval via a submenu of the vehicle's central screen during a rainstorm, which caused considerable distraction. The ruling is particularly relevant in view of the fact that automakers are increasingly replacing conventional buttons and levers with sensor fields, sliders or screens, and sometimes even doing away with the lighting for some controls. This is not likely to make the device any easier to operate, especially for seniors. If safety-relevant functions are to be relocated to touchscreens, control via voice commands or gestures would undoubtedly be a better option to keep distraction time as short as possible.

Unfortunately, the new vehicles currently being sold also show one thing quite clearly: every manufacturer is building its own concepts for operating systems that appear to be coherent in themselves, stand out from the competition thanks to one gimmick or another, and are also easy to operate after a thorough study of the respective system. However, if the vehicles are used infrequently or if models from different manufacturers are driven, the intuitive use advertised by the manufacturers comes up against its limits, especially in situations requiring quick action. Voice commands and gestures for control also differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, and in some cases even within the same vehicle types with different infotainment systems. One thing is clear: safety must always come first, despite all design ambitions and ergonomic and visual considerations.


Automatic transmission

When it comes to purchasing a vehicle, many seniors in some markets are likely to be faced with the question of which car is right for them: electric drive or a combustion engine – with manual or automatic transmission?? In Germany, for example, the market share of new vehicles with automatic transmissions has risen rapidly – according to the German Automobile Trust, it was over 55 percent in 2020, compared to just 28 percent in 2010. However, this is no comparison to the USA or Japan, where the proportion of automatic cars is around 90 percent. In the future, it can be assumed that manual transmission will become even less important over the years – among other things, because many modern assistance systems only work in conjunction with automatic transmissions, and even an electric drive no longer requires a gear change.

Many seniors in particular opt for automatic transmissions, as they allow for more relaxed driving without many gear changes and can also compensate for health limitations. Crucial question: Are vehicles with automatic transmissions less safe because they move constantly when the engine is running, unless the brake pedal is pressed, or is there a greater risk of unintended acceleration?? Finally, police reports repeatedly tell of older drivers who have lost control of their vehicles with automatic transmissions because they confused the brake and gas pedal pedals or accidentally put the car in reverse gear. To avoid such operating errors and the panic reactions that often result from them, seniors should ideally have driving instructors show them the special features of such a transmission or practice mastering borderline situations as part of driving training courses before buying an automatic car. Experts also advise that the switch to automatic should be made as early as possible, so that the routine required for this can be acquired at a time when the cognitive capacity is still present without major age-related losses. The bottom line, however, is that there is a lot to be said for automatic, as it allows you to concentrate even better on what's happening in traffic.


When it comes to driver assistance systems, those that provide support in complex and challenging traffic situations have particularly high potential benefits for seniors. This includes intersection assistants, blind spot warning systems or lane change assistants, night vision systems or emergency braking assistants, but also navigation systems with current map status and clear acoustic and visual instructions. Traffic sign assistants that use cameras to detect the speed limit and display it on the dashboard also help to compensate for deficits in attention to a certain extent and give an additional feeling of safety. Rear view camera and parking aids can also mitigate stressful situations and thus contribute to greater safety. Particularly at dusk and in the dark, intelligent lighting systems or high-beam assistants can help to partially compensate for diminishing twilight and darkness vision without drawing the driver's attention too much to the high-beam switch. E-Call systems, ideally with additional service call functionality, can contribute to a safer feeling overall and reduce stress in accident or breakdown situations.

A study conducted on behalf of the German Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt) and published in 2019 took an in-depth look at support options for older drivers through driver assistance systems. In this context, the most important driving-relevant, age-correlated performance losses were also summarized and assigned to certain desired driver assistance functions or suitable systems (see chart). At the same time, the BASt study also addressed barriers to faster adoption of driver assistance systems among seniors. It is therefore essential to be familiar with the various systems and, in particular, to know how they work and what their limits are. Other obstacles identified in a survey of the target group included fears of high repair costs in the event of a defect in the systems and concerns about the lack of transparency in the handling of the data obtained by the vehicle manufacturers. Clarification is necessary here in every respect.


On the subject of driver assistance systems, as recently as autumn 2020, the market and opinion research company forsa conducted a representative survey on behalf of DEKRA among around 2.000 randomly selected German drivers in all age groups were surveyed. The fact that there are assistance systems to support the driver is generally considered to be very good or good by 81 percent of the men aged 65 and over and 70 percent of the women aged 65 and over surveyed. According to their own statements, around 80 percent (men) and more than 60 percent (women) of the two age groups mentioned above have vehicles in which assistance systems are installed.

With regard to the use of existing driver assistance systems, there are clear differences according to the age and gender of the respondents: older women aged 65 and over have less knowledge of or experience with the systems available for selection in the survey than the average of the drivers surveyed. Men and women aged 65 and over are by far the most frequent users of parking assistance (73 and 55 percent respectively), followed by (high beam) light assist (42 and 29 percent respectively), proximity control (37 and 19 percent respectively) and lane departure warning (33 and 17 percent respectively). However, all of these figures are significantly lower than those for 18- to 44-year-olds and 45- to 64-year-olds. The biggest differences are in the blind spot and lane change assist systems, respectively. In the age group of 18- to 24-year-old men, 48 percent said they had already used such a system, while only 22 percent of senior citizens had. Among the women surveyed, the difference was not quite as clear, although only 22 percent of women in the young age group had used the system, compared with 14 percent of senior citizens.

Drivers were also asked about which driver assistance systems they would definitely want in their car when buying a new car, if money were no object. For men and women aged 65 and over, parking assistance also tops the list (87 and 84 percent respectively), followed by adaptive cruise control (74 and 59 percent respectively), blind spot and lane change assistants (72 and 75 percent respectively), predictive emergency braking assistants (71 and 60 percent respectively) and lane departure warning systems (60 and 46 percent respectively).

Depending on the vehicle model, the assistance systems are operated differently or they can be switched on and off differently. Across all age groups, 83 percent of those surveyed consider it necessary and sensible for the operation of the systems in all cars – similar to the turn signal, for example – to be as uniform and standardized as possible. Of respondents 65 and older, 89 percent agree, and of respondents 75 and older, as many as 95 percent agree.

The survey did not aim to determine the status quo of driver assistance systems on the German market. It was more a matter of finding out more about the knowledge of how assistance systems work and the wishes and expectations with regard to driving assistance. The survey results clearly show that many people are not at all familiar with assistance systems or do not know which functions are behind which designation or which systems they really have in their vehicles. Around 30 percent of those surveyed stated that they have no assistance systems at all in their vehicles. This result is difficult to bring with the data on the age of the vehicles used or even the German vehicle stock. On the other hand, around ten percent of respondents said they had experience with exit assistants as well as night vision assistants – systems that are hardly available in any vehicle at present. Overall, however, driver assistance systems are seen as having a high potential benefit across all age groups, and respondents have a positive attitude toward such systems when buying their next vehicle.

In addition to the DEKRA survey by forsa, the results of numerous other surveys and studies on this topic are also informative. For example, in its 2019 publication "Experiences of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems among Older Drivers," the London-based National Center for Social Research also concludes that seniors are generally open to driver assistance systems, but want them to be highly user-friendly and not too distracting. Seniors with several health impairments show a higher acceptance than completely healthy people. In addition, from the point of view of older drivers, systems that convey information acoustically rather than visually would be preferable. At the same time, however, the fear of becoming "dependent" on an assistance system is also expressed.

The 11. International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicular Applications in September 2019 in Utrecht presented results of an online survey with 1.328 people aged between 65 and 95 also show that driver assistance systems are well received overall. However, acceptance of systems that intervene in driving is lower than for pure information assistants. In this context, it is noteworthy that people with a low level of control over technology – in psychology, control over technology refers to the subjective idea of whether one can control one's own behavior in certain situations or whether it is determined by external influences – tend to prefer systems that intervene automatically so as not to be stressed or distracted by other information.


In addition to pure vehicle operation, comfort when getting in and out of the vehicle, loading and unloading, and during the trip also play an important role. Wide-opening doors, large door openings and a raised seating position – to suit the respective size of the user – make getting in and out easier. Grab handles in the interior in the upper third of the A-pillar or on the roof are another important aid. A high seating position also favors the all-round visibility mentioned in the safety section. Ergonomic seat design and user-friendly seat adjustment options, in combination with suitable suspension and damping of the chassis, make a significant contribution to driving comfort and thus help people to remain alert and concentrated for longer periods of time.

To make loading and unloading easier, it is helpful to close off the trunk to the rear without a rear wall. The optimum height, on the other hand, depends on the size of the user. A short distance between the backrest of the rear seat and the end of the luggage compartment reduces the load volume, but at the same time heavy items of cargo can be pushed up against the backrest of the rear seat with a positive fit, even by people who are not as strong or whose upper body mobility is restricted. For larger trunks, so-called trunk organizers or trunk bags are recommended, which enable good and simple load securing. The length and maneuverability of the vehicle play a role, especially when most trips are made in inner-city areas with narrow streets and a lack of parking space.


Man in the car

Before buying a car, it is important to obtain information on the above-mentioned aspects and to "experience" personal preferences by means of test drives with different vehicles from different manufacturers and thus draw up a ranking list. Tests, such as those conducted by insurance companies, automobile clubs or senior citizens' associations, which evaluate current vehicles in terms of their suitability for use by older people, also provide assistance with regard to sensible criteria or even vehicle selection. Just because you've driven a certain manufacturer's vehicles all your life doesn't mean their vehicles are suitable for seniors. The safe preservation of one's own mobility may require openness to change at this point.

Vehicle manufacturers attach different importance to the topic of senior-friendly vehicle design. Some manufacturers use so-called age simulation suits during development. These "suits" developed in the field of gerontology help young people to experience age-related limitations on their own bodies. The suits cover not only mechanical and haptic limitations such as loss of strength and mobility or limited gripping ability, but also deteriorating eyesight and restricted visual fields as well as hearing loss or even coordination limitations. Common situations such as operating a door handle, getting in and out of the car, gripping the seat belt and inserting the tab into the seat belt buckle, turning the ignition key – or even the much easier pressing of a start button – as well as driving itself can thus be optimized for seniors.