According to the National Older Driver Research and Training Center, by the year 2024 one in four drivers will be over the age of 65. With this influx of elderly drivers comes a range of ailments -- from arthritis to paralysis -- that makes driving more difficult. Oftentimes, the person is cognitively able to safely drive, but has some physical limitations.

Auto manufacturers have responded to this need, with a wide range of auto mobility products. They range from simple tools to boost a small elderly person up in the seat of the car or make it easier for those with arthritis to steer or brake, to complex systems that make entrance and exit from the vehicle less cumbersome, and ingenious solutions for loading and storing equipment such as scooters or wheelchairs.

The United States doesn't have nearly as many of these products as in Japan, where there is a greater proportion of elderly people than anywhere else in the world, says Bob Swaim, National Program Manager, Toyota Automobility. "But with an aging boomer market, there will be an increasing need for these products." In fact, says Swaim, "With these products going mainstream, you may soon see a Toyota Sienna with a lift up seat displayed in your local dealership showroom."

Types of Auto Mobility Products

Whether you are the driver or a passenger, your elderly loved one may benefit from some of these car mobility products:

  • Wheelchair accessible vehicles are designed with features such as wider doors, lowered floors, and ramps or lifts. Some have a mechanism that lowers the rear suspension of the vehicle to decrease the angle of the ramp, or removable driver or passenger seats so that the wheelchair occupant can drive or ride from his chair. Many of these features can be installed on a person's existing vehicle, too.
  • Ramps can be installed into either the side or rear entry of a van or minivan to allow easy ingress and egress from the vehicle.
  • Lifts fold out and lower to the ground to hoist a scooter or wheelchair along with its occupant into the van.
  • Restraint systems can be installed to restrain the driver or passenger who is riding in a wheelchair rather than in the seat safely.
  • Loading devices load a wheelchair or scooter into the car or van, and then deliver the equipment to the trunk, back of the van or even into an exterior carrier on top of the car for stowage.
  • Hand controls can be installed in a car or van for those with lower extremity limitations caused by arthritis, diabetic neuropathies, or stroke.
  • Pedal modifications include extensions, left foot accelerators and pedal position relocation.
  • Reduced effort steering and braking systems can be installed to minimize the amount of movement or pressure needed to steer or stop the vehicle.
  • Panoramic mirrors reduce blind spots for those with limited neck mobility and difficulty looking back over their shoulder.
  • Support handles can be inserted on the vehicle door frame on either passenger or driver side to allow safe entrance and exit.
  • Turning automotive seating allows a person to enter and exit the vehicle more easily or transfer from a wheelchair into and out of the seat. The seat rotates, comes out of the vehicle, and lowers toward the ground, eliminating the climbing and twisting normally required to enter a higher vehicle. Power transfer seats, which can be installed in either the passenger or driver's seat position in all types of cars or vans, extend out the door of the vehicle, lower to the ground, and even tilt forward to allow transfer from a wheelchair or walker into the seat. Less expensive is a swivel seat cushion, which is a product that is placed on the existing car seat.

Where to Begin with Auto Mobility Products

How to begin your search for some of these products? According to Joseph Langhauser, Mobility Product Manager for General Motors, the best place to start is with a certified driving rehabilitation specialist (CDRS). "This person can give you a prescription for equipment and point you to a mobility dealer who can pull your vehicle together," he says

What is a CDRS? According to Elin Schold Davis, Coordinator of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Older Driver Initiative, this person (often an occupational therapist) is trained to provide a comprehensive evaluation to determine a person's overall ability to operate a vehicle safely, and if necessary, recommend ways to decrease risks.

This may include an older driver clinic in which the person can learn to compensate for changes, or even suggestions for adaptive equipment that can be added to the vehicle to make it easier to drive safely. A CDRS will also make certain that recommended equipment is installed properly and that the elderly person is trained in its use before operating the vehicle independently.

How to Choose an Adaptable Car

Before you select a vehicle, a CDRS can help you take some things into consideration when making your vehicle selection. General Motors recommends older drivers and their families think about:

  • The kind of driving your loved one does — highway, city, long trips, short trips, etc.
  • The amount of space needed by your aftermarket mobility equipment.
  • Any additional cargo your loved one may carry.
  • The needs of family members and friends.

The costs associated with modifying a vehicle vary. New vehicles modified with adaptive equipment can cost as much as $80,000 or more. But both Swaim and Langhauser say that many automobile dealerships offer a rebate—sometimes as much as $1,800—on the purchase of a new vehicle with certain auto mobility products installed.

Other sources of funding include private insurance companies, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or nonprofit associations that advocate for individuals with disabilities, such as Lions, Elks or Rotary clubs. The cost of adaptive equipment may also qualify for a medical deduction on the federal income tax return.

Mobility Programs Offered by Major Auto Manufacturers

Toyota
The Toyota Mobility Program provides financial support for new vehicle customers. Toyota will provide a reimbursement of up to $1,000 to each eligible, original retail customer, for the exact cost they paid to purchase and install qualifying adaptive driving or passenger equipment for transporting persons with physical disabilities. This offer applies to all purchased or leased new 2001 and later Toyota vehicles. Leased vehicles require advance written lessor approval of adaptive equipment installations.

For more information call, 1-800-331-4331

General Motors
Through the GM Mobility Reimbursement Program, new vehicle purchasers/lessors who install or reinstall eligible adaptive mobility equipment on their new GM vehicles can receive a combination of financial assistance and the protection and convenience of OnStar service. Participating GM divisions include Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, HUMMER, Pontiac, Saturn, and Saab. Up to $1,000 reimbursement of the cost of any eligible adaptive equipment when installed (or reinstalled) on any eligible, purchased or leased, new vehicle manufactured by GM, plus two additional years of standard OnStar service at no additional cost on all 2007–2008 GM vehicles.

For more information, call 1-800-353-3867

Volvo
Mobility by Volvo provides up to $1,000 in financial assistance toward the cost of adding adaptive equipment to an eligible new Volvo and up to $200 on alert hearing devices.

For more information, call 1-800-480-9012

Honda
The Honda Customer Mobility Assistance Program will provide a reimbursement of up to $1,000 to each eligible, original retail customer for expenses incurred to purchase and install qualifying adaptive equipment on any eligible purchased or leased Honda vehicle.

For more information, call 1-800-999-1009

Ford
The Ford Mobility Motoring Program provides up to $1,000 toward the cost of installed adaptive equipment on a new 2007, 2008 or 2009 Ford, Lincoln or Mercury car, van, truck, CUV or SUV and up to $200 on alert hearing devices, lumbar seats and running boards.

For more information, call 1-800-952-2248

Daimler Chrysler
Conversions to Dodge Caravan, Dodge Grand Caravan, and Chrysler Town & Country models may be reimbursed up to a maximum of $1,000. Conversions to all other Chrysler LLC cars or trucks qualify for a maximum reimbursement of $750. Dodge Sprinter models qualify for a maximum reimbursement of $500 on wheel chair lifts. Running boards qualify for a maximum reimbursement of $400. Alerting devices qualify for a maximum reimbursement of $200.

For more information, call 1-800-255-9877