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Are you a boomer? What do you drive? (Juan Monino/Juan Monino)
Are you a boomer? What do you drive? (Juan Monino/Juan Monino)

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How the auto industry must adapt to baby boomers Add to ...

Baby Boomers started hitting 65 last fall. Yikes! The bulge of senior drivers and therefore older car buyers is about to expand beyond the 16 per cent of Canada’s population that is 65 and older right now (according to the CIA World Factbook).

Already I can hear you saying, “Wait. Before we start creating a list of suitable cars for pensioners, let’s ask a more fundamental question: When is someone too old to drive – or perhaps just too old to drive at night? Or only too old to drive on the highway?”

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You want to open that can of worms, do you? Well, these are fair questions, and there are no easy answers. And as usual, Canada’s decentralized – or what some might call Balkanized – approach to licensing and regulation presents us with a mess.

You see, last year a Canadian research team found that Canada is a regulatory patchwork of requirements “for license renewal, reporting practices,” and “appeals processes,” researchers – Anita Myers from the University of Waterloo, Brenda Vrkljan from McMaster University and Shawn Marshall from the University of Ottawa – noted.

Naturally, this being Canada, the provinces and territories generally disagree on how to identify and regulate older drivers. That’s the conclusion of the study funded by the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation and Transport Canada.

This is no small matter. Transport Canada says that in 2009 about 3.25-million Canadians aged 65 and older were licensed to drive in Canada – or 14 per cent of the total driving population. However, in the next decade the number of wheel-wielding seniors is expected to more than double thanks to all those greying boomers. Is that a problem?

“While older drivers are involved in proportionately fewer collisions than younger drivers, they are more likely to be seriously injured or die as a result,” says Myers in a report on the study. “The rate of fatal collisions starts to rise at age 70 and continues to increase for drivers in their 80s and 90s.”

What’s the problem with aged and aging drivers? Vision and other health problems top the list of potential issues. Thus, “the focus should be on identifying potentially medically-at-risk drivers regardless of age and thoroughly assessing each person’s capabilities for continued safe driving.”

Perhaps so, but don’t expect Boomers to surrender their driving privileges easily. Boomers will cling to the freedom of mobility and general independence of driving for as long as possible. Here, the auto industry can help with advances and innovations in design and technology.

The industry must because aging drivers – yes, Baby Boomers are not immune to the effects of advancing years and I speak from experience – will remain desperate to keep driving even as they face what we’ll call the “physical challenges” that cannot easily be overcome with the help of any of those pharmaceutical advertised on CNN.

Yes, yes, anti-inflammatories and pain killers will often ameliorate stiff hands and wrists. But cars with touch-screen and voice-activated controls will help here, too. Car design? Golden Age drivers with creaky joints and sore backs will benefit from big door openings, tall seating positions and roomy cabins.

Ah, the sore back. Heated seats often ease the pain there, without a doubt. Vision issues? Older drivers can turn to back-up cameras, parking sensors and blind spot warning systems. Night Vision technology offers assistance to drivers of all ages, too. Lane-departure warning systems and parallel parking programs have a place with at least some seniors, as well.

Vision? The aging driver will want to find a vehicle with brighter instrument displays and larger-type fonts throughout, from the instruments to the clocks. Touch-screens are more intuitive for inputting information and instructions and require fewer fine motor controls.

These are all nice and useful steps for the older driver. But don’t hold your breath waiting for car companies to market the joys of their geezer models. The saying in the auto industry goes like this: You can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but you can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man.

For Jeremey Cato's top picks for boomers, check out our gallery.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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