Senior citizens behind the wheel are a known risk. With age, reaction times slow down, eyesight worsens, and physical tasks — like quickly turning one’s head — become more demanding.
To demonstrate just how difficult it can be to safely operate a car as a senior, Liberty Mutual Insurance invited me to put on a suit designed to mimic old age (about 80 years old).
That meant putting braces on my knees, so I could hardly bend my legs. I also wore a brace on my neck, so turning my head was difficult. The suit had straps that tightened, so I hunched over. And weights on my ankles, chest, arms, and hands, simulated the stiffness of arthritis.
Then I was sent to a closed track.
Just getting into the car was a challenge. The steps that are usually so easy for me (open the door, get in, close the door, put on the seatbelt, adjust the rear view mirror) were tiring. I could do it, but not without grunting a bit.
Once I was buckled in, I went through two exercises on the track: a reverse slalom and a three point turn. Neither would have been tricky in normal conditions, but I could barely rotate my head. Turning the wheel required an effort. I got through it without hitting a cone, but it took a long time.
The same was true for the three-point turn. It was the easier exercise, but still much harder than it is when I’m not covered in weights and braces. Once I was through, I had to unbuckle my seatbelt, open the door, and get out again.
The fact that driving is difficult for the elderly was no surprise, but acting it out drove home the lesson. And since I have the eyesight and reactions of a healthy 25 year old, things weren’t even as tough as they could have been.
The exercise also made me realise how helpful some new car features are for the elderly. I always appreciate power seats, backup cameras, and a push-button start. But once I was trapped in a grandfather’s body, they saved me a lot of time and energy (per my instructor’s request, I avoided using the backup camera while driving).
Here are a few more photos from my drive.
Weights on my hands and chest:
Braces on my knees:
Hunched over while getting into one car:
And out of another:
I almost hit a fence during the reverse slalom:
The whole suit in all its glory:
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