MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Now, high-tech solutions to help older drivers. By the year 2030, nearly 20 percent of drivers in the U.S. will be over the age of 65. The oldest drivers, along with teenagers, have the highest rates of fatal accidents.
Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports on innovations to help older people drive longer and more safely.
TRACY SAMILTON: Toni Mirage knew something had to be done. After her 87-year-old friend and neighbor had three fender benders in a few months, it was only a matter of time before somebody got hurt. Eventually, the friend was convinced to give up her license, but her safety has come at a high price.
Ms. TONI MIRAGE: Now, she doesn't get to go anywhere. It's the most beautiful part of the year for her. Her favorite time was always chasing the colors, and nobody even thinks to call her. nobody even thinks to call her.
SAMILTON: Losing the right to drive is a big deal, especially in this country. Some automakers want to give people better options than public transit. We lose all sorts of abilities as we age, like being able to turn our necks to see what's coming in the blind spot. More than a decade ago, Ford Motor Company developed a special aging suit to help designers feel and understand what it's like to be old. It's a jumpsuit with heavy, inflexible pads at the joints and neck. Ford's Wes Sherwood says it adds about 30 years to your body.
Mr. WES SHERWOOD (Spokesman, Ford): And the idea is, how can we have our young designers and engineers feel what it's like to have some of the limitations that many in the country have.
SAMILTON: But today, Ford learns a lot more about the needs of older drivers in its Virtual Environment Lab. Inside the dark room, people sit down inside a special car frame with movable parts that can be adjusted to simulate any new-car design. Web Manager Elizabeth Baron helps the test driver put on special gloves and goggles.
Ms. ELIZABETH BARON (Web Designer, Ford): You wear computer screens on your eyes that have left and right stereo view, and then you will have a virtual representation of your hands, so you will see these hands move while - when your hands move.
SAMILTON: It's very "Star Trek." The goggles instantly plunge you into a virtual world of streets and cars and pedestrians. On a computer, researchers can see exactly what the older driver sees, and fix any problems. It's pretty "Star Trek" at General Motors, too.
Mr. THOMAS SEDER (Laboratory Group Manager, Human Machine Interface Division, General Motors): So this works on a transparent phosphor technology that's coded onto the windscreen, onto the windshield.
SAMILTON: That's GM's Thomas Seder. He works at the company's human machine interface division, which is developing a windshield to help older drivers compensate for vision loss and slower reaction times. Images can appear on the glass, similar to the lines drawn on a football field on TV to highlight plays. The windshield can draw an outline around a road sign, or the sides of the road in heavy fog. With infrared sensors, a small, red icon of a deer could pop up just before the animal jumps in front of your car.
Mr. SEDER: So you could take evasive action if you needed to.
SAMILTON: It will be at least six years before this windshield comes to market. But other technologies are available now, like radar-assisted blind-spot protection. Of course, all this work doesn't mean we'll never have to give up the keys. But most of us may be able to keep driving more safely and a lot longer than we do now.
For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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