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The New Old Age Blog: For Older Drivers, Help With Parking PDF Print E-mail
The New Old Age Blog: For Older Drivers, Help With ParkingRobert Caplin for The New York TimesParallel parking is a challenge for elderly drivers, particularly in a city like New York.

Driving is not just about driving, any more than jokes are just about jokes. As discussed often here at The New Old Age, the battle between adult children and aging parents over who decides when it’s time to give up the car keys can be highly emotional, because it’s as much about losing freedom and independence as it is about safety.

But sailing down the road is only the half of the problem. Parking is another stressful challenge for many elderly drivers — and the cause of many accidents. Now automakers have come up with a newfangled feature that may help: Parking assist systems promise not only to help you locate the right-size parking space, but also to parallel-park the vehicle for you.

Parking isn’t just a problem for the elderly. “Even many younger people will drive around the block five times” before daring to parallel park, said Bryan Reimer, associate director of research at the New England University Transportation Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the task is more difficult for older people who “cannot turn to look behind them to get a view of what’s behind.”

Mr. Reimer has been brainstorming with the Age Lab at M.I.T. on car technology to help the elderly travel more easily and safely. He conducted a study with the Ford Motor Company to see just how stressful parking can be and whether high-tech assistance might reduce the strain.

Between the ages of 30 and 70, most adults experience a 20 percent to 30 percent decline in range of motion; after age 70, they may suffer up to a 50 percent decline in spinal mobility. Poor neck rotation can double the risk of an accident, Mr. Reimer has found.

So recently I made my way over to the New York City Ford dealership in Midtown to test-drive a car with Ford’s “active park assist” feature. It was the perfect time to try it out: Even though I like to think of myself as a driving whiz (I survived a Skip Barber Formula One racing car class and have the sticker to prove it), for the last few weeks I’d been feeling some aching and stiffness in my neck and shoulder.

A Ford representative gave me a 10-minute training session. Then he sent me out on my own behind the wheel of a new Focus in search of New York gold — parking spots.

Step 1 was easy. I pushed a button and set off uptown. When the ultrasonic sensors at the front and rear of the car detected that I was passing a space big enough to fit in, speakers beeped and a screen to the right of the dashboard lit up with the words, “Found parking space, stop vehicle to park.” The car aims for spaces with about 18 inches leeway on either side. No more guesswork – if it beeps, you fit.

Next, the screen told me to pull up a little, shift into reverse and take my hands off the steering wheel.

The first time I lifted my hands and watched the steering wheel start spinning left and right, guided by some invisible electronic gremlin, I was so unnerved I yelled “Ohmygod ohmygod” and slammed on the brakes in midmanuever. It took another block of straight driving to get my heart to stop thudding.

The second time, I took a deep breath and let my hands hover an inch above the wheel, but still could not suppress an almost involuntary “Ohmygod ohmygod” — this time a whisper. I was so mesmerized by the steering wheel spinning of its own accord that I forgot to brake, despite the beeps and red warning signals on the dashboard screen. I bumped right into the car behind. (No damage, good bumpers.)

The system requires that you control the accelerator and brake. (I must have zoned out when that little detail was covered in my 10-minute tutorial.) By the third time, I was catching on. By the sixth time, I raised my arms high — Look, Ma, no hands! — and the car effortlessly guided itself in. I was pretty darn pleased with myself, though I had done nothing more than brake gently (it parks really fast) and pull forward at the end to even the spaces in front and behind.

But here’s what I learned that a parking assist system doesn’t do: It can’t get you out of the space. And it can’t tell you if there’s a fire hydrant next to the space, or whether alternate side of the street parking rules are in effect. “We haven’t figured out the technology to tell if you’re going to get a ticket,” said Alan Hall, a spokesman for Ford.

But in the European model of the Ford Focus, the company has come close: There are cameras that can read traffic signs far ahead and project the info on the dashboard and screen. “We may launch that here in a year or two,” Mr. Hall said.

Two other technologies that may prove to be a boon to elderly drivers: blind-spot detection, which allows you to change lanes more safely, and cross-traffic alert, which keeps you from drifting out of your lane and lets you know as you back up if any cars are coming, even if you can’t fully twist your head around.

The park assist feature is available now in many Ford models, and similar options are available on the Lincoln, Lexus, Toyota Prius and the BMW 5 series. It can cost an extra $500 to $600 in Lexus and Ford models, and more than $5,000, with other options, in the Prius.

Mr. Reimer said that when his nine-month study on parking and stress began, many of the participants did not think using parking assistance sounded all that useful. Then they tried it. “Once people are trained in how to use it,” Mr. Reimer said, “they love it.”

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