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Sense & Sensibility

New Set of Wheels Meets Old Set of Eyes

October 6, 2008
By Kathleen Felong

Kathy Felong Kathy Felong

I got a new car last October. Gas was on the rise and my 17-year-old was on the clock. We had finally reached that point where sharing vehicles was driving a wedge between parent and child, husband and wife, worker and job.

I did my homework. Compared safety features, customer and expert reviews—and mileage estimates. We found a nifty, mid-sized vehicle that fit the bill (antilock brakes and a moonroof).

My new car actually looked a little sporty, and that made me feel young and sporty, too.

But recently, I learned the car had fared well in another review. It should have made me happier. Instead, I felt my grey roots shiver beneath their cover.

In a May story on the boom in Boomer-friendly transport, Business Week named my ride among a list of “smart cars for mature drivers.” Aged-appropriate features include good ergonomics and a “thick steering wheel” ideal for arthritic hands.

I wasn’t sure whether to cheer or tear.

The story noted that the aging Baby Boomers were going to change the traffic situation in a not-so-hip way as an additional 20 million Americans move into the 65+ age bracket between now and 2020.

Automakers, the report said, are working quickly to deal with such aging inevitabilities as loss of night vision and slower reaction time. They’re developing features like infrared night vision (still a way off) and lane departure warnings for those who start to drift (already here on some vehicles). They’re also upping the size of numbers on the instrument panel, and choosing fonts easier on the old eye.

It’s nice that the carmakers are recognizing our needs. (Hey, we’re the Boomers. Could we expect less?) Still, the issues surrounding older drivers can be sensitive. My own mother is 70 now (which is the new 50). Her car is her means to an active, independent life. But for how long?

It’s something she and her Florida gal pals talk about from time to time. They’re closer to the reality that, at some point, they may consider hanging up the keys. And whether it’s prompted by self-recognition, or the urging of those who care, it will not be easy.

As for me—and as for now—I’ll approach the thick steering wheel and bigger numbers on the dash with a measure of gratitude. At least the car itself doesn’t look like an orthopedic shoe.

Kathy Felong is a former award-winning reporter and columnist, and one of the editors of Eriesense. She lives in Erie, Pa., with her husband and college-age kids. E-mail her at

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