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My parents are in their mid-70s. They’re buying a new SUV and want the top-of-the-line trim but it comes with safety tech like lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control. I already worry that their driving will get worse soon because of their age, and I’m wondering whether some of this new technology might confuse them while they’re driving. Or that they won’t know how to use it. Should I be worried? Is this tech a good fit for seniors? – Claire, Calgary

Seniors are actually safer on the road, statistically, than younger drivers – and safety tech might help them stay safe on the road for longer, experts say. But, like all drivers, they’ll need to understand how to use it.

“Empirical data and scientific evidence show that senior drivers are typically among the safest drivers – they are less inclined to speed, drive under the influence of alcohol or drive in a risky way,” said Ward Vanlaar, chief operating officer of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF). “Essentially, there’s a misperception that older drivers are less safe because they’re more fragile and so they die more easily in crashes – crashes that wouldn’t have killed a younger driver.”

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Right now, one in seven Canadians is over 65 – by 2038, that number will grow to one in four. And we’ll all need to get around safely.

Eighty per cent of drivers thought, incorrectly, that blind spot detection could detect pedestrians, cyclists and cars passing at high speeds.

iStockPhoto/iStockPhoto

But aging drivers face physical changes – for instance, worsening night and peripheral vision – or conditions like arthritis that might make it tougher to shoulder check.

Often, seniors start to restrict their own driving – they’ll stop driving at night or stick to less busy roads, Vanlaar said.

Safety tech might compensate for some of those changes. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) said all drivers can benefit from safety technology, but rear parking sensors and back up cameras have been especially effective for drivers over 70, reducing backup crashes by 36 per cent in one study.

MIT’s AgeLab and the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence made a list of 10 vehicle safety technologies that might help senior drivers stay safe.

The top four? Smart headlights, emergency response systems that call 911 if there’s a crash, backup sensors, and blind-spot detection.

“I personally believe the advancements we’re seeing can increase safe driving years,” Kyle Rakow, vice-president of AARP Driver Safety.

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Safety tech a mystery?

But a quick run-through of the tech at the car dealership – if that happens at all – might not be enough to teach drivers how these systems work and what they can, and can’t do. And some drivers might not even know what tech their cars have.

“In the last workshop I was in, I had an individual who raised her hand when we started talking about blind spot monitoring systems,” Rakow said. “And she said ‘Oh my gosh, that’s why my steering wheel is vibrating, I thought something was wrong with my car.'”

In the U.S., an AAA study showed drivers of all ages didn’t fully understand the limitations of safety tech – or even know what their vehicle had.

For instance, 80 per cent of drivers thought, incorrectly, that blind spot detection could detect pedestrians, cyclists and cars passing at high speeds. One in six didn’t know whether their car had automatic emergency braking.

The AAA recommends that drivers ask questions at the dealership about when tech will and won’t work, get an in-vehicle demonstration and read the owner’s manual.

TIRF’s Vanlaar said researchers found that the majority of senior drivers want to know more about existing and upcoming semi-autonomous safety technology that could reduce crashes – which counters the perception that seniors are afraid of technology.

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And, they want to learn about the technology hands-on. That means more education programs might be needed,

“The early adopters of these technologies are typically younger male drivers who are the least safe – if you’re speeding, for example, you don’t get the same safety benefits,” Vanlaar said. “If we can make these safer older drivers become the early adopters, that would help.”

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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