Most senior drivers – nearly 90% – do not make inexpensive adaptations to their vehicles that can improve safety and prolong their time behind the wheel, according to new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Seniors 65 and older are more than twice as likely as younger drivers to be killed when involved in a crash. AAA urges seniors to consider making the necessary adaptations to their vehicles in order to reduce crash risk and extend the time they can continue to drive.

The research brief, In-Vehicle Technologies, Vehicle Adaptations, and Older Drivers: Use, Learning, and Perceptions is the first phase in the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety's groundbreaking Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers (LongROAD) project.

The researchers investigated 12 vehicle adaptations and found that fewer than 9% of senior drivers reported using any of the devices in their vehicles. Some inexpensive devices that can be purchased and put to use include cushions and seat pads, which can improve the line of sight and help alleviate back or hip pain; multifaceted mirrors improve visibility and minimize blind spots.

The other devices such as pedal extensions, which can help drivers keep a safe distance from steering wheels and airbags and optimize visibility; steering wheel covers improve grip for drivers with arthritic hand joints; hand controls let drivers perform all maneuvers and functions without using lower extremities. 

"When an ache or pain begins hindering driving ability, many older drivers are able to continue driving safely after making a few adjustments," said Elin Schold Davis, project coordinator of the American Occupational Therapy Association's Older Driver Initiative. "Occupational therapy practitioners trained in driving rehabilitation are especially valuable in connecting the dots between medical challenges that can affect driving and the appropriate equipment and adaptations needed to remain safely independent in the vehicle."

Vehicle adaptions also benefit seniors' mental health by extending their time on the road. Previous research shows that seniors who have stopped driving are almost two times more likely to suffer from depression and nearly five times more likely to enter a long-term care facility than those who remain behind the wheel.

In the LongROAD study, more than 70% of senior drivers had experienced health conditions that impact muscles and bones such as arthritis, hip or knee replacement and joint pains. Some seniors in the study reduced their driving due to these conditions. The installation of certain devices like steering wheel covers can help lessen the impact of arthritis while larger mirrors and assistive devices on seats can help with limited neck mobility.

"It's surprising that more seniors are not utilizing simple and inexpensive vehicle adaptations when you consider the large number who are dealing with muscle and joint conditions," said Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety and advocacy.

AAA and AOTA worked in collaboration with the American Society on Aging and AARP to develop CarFit to help senior drivers better utilize the features and technologies in their vehicles. AAA also offers the Smart Features for Older Drivers tool, which can help senior drivers identify in-expensive devices and vehicle features that optimize their comfort and safety.