If you’re shopping for a car to safely get you around until your driving days come to an end, here are a few things to consider.

As we age, our strength, mobility, flexibility, vision and the speed at which we react to information can all change. These changes can mean our confidence drops as we feel less comfortable and less in control. It may also mean our car buying priorities change.

With this in mind, here are some points to consider when selecting your next car.

Safety

Safety should be important to all car buyers, but it becomes even more important as we age. The older we get, the more prone we are to injury in a crash and slower we are to heal - a good reason to buy the safest car you can afford.

Generally, there are two aspects to consider. Features that prevent the crash and those that protect occupants in a crash.

Crash prevention equipment includes:

  • Autonomous Emergency Braking (in an emergency it applies the brakes if you don’t)
  • Brake Assist (applies maximum emergency braking effort even if you don’t)
  • Anti-lock brakes (assists in maintaining vehicle control in wet and slippery conditions)
  • Stability control (assists in keeping the car on its correct path)
  • Adaptive Cruise Control (maintains vehicle speed and a safe following distance)
  • Rear Cross Traffic Alert (alerts you to approaching traffic you may not be able to see)
  • Blind Spot Monitoring (alerts you to objects you may not be able to see in the mirrors)
  • Reverse Camera (provides vision directly behind to eliminate blind spots)
  • Parking / Reversing sensors (provides a warning you are approaching an object while parking)
  • Lane Keep Assist (assists in keeping within traffic lanes)
  • Lane departure warning (warns if you are drifting out of a traffic lane)
  • Speed Sign Recognition (removes uncertainty by displaying speed zones on the dash)

Occupant protection includes:

  • Structural integrity (a strong, safe passenger compartment to protect you in a crash)
  • Airbags (assist the seat belts to prevent occupants contacting the inside of the car in a crash)
  • Head restraints on all seats (helps reduce whiplash injuries)
  • Pre-crash mode (identifies the potential for a crash and prepares the car’s safety systems)
  • Seat belts with pretensioners (manages the crash forces the occupants are exposed to)
Tip: To find cars that have high safety ratings:
  • For used cars, look for their Used Car Safety Rating at UCSR. Ratings are shown as a star rating and are based on the outcomes of real-world crashes.
  • For newer cars, check their ANCAP score, which assesses many of the safety features mentioned above as well as how the car performs in a laboratory crash test.

Accessibility and Practicality

Think about the ease of entry and exit.

  • If the seating position is too low, using the car could literally become a painful experience, particularly if you or your passengers have restricted movement.
  • Equally, a high riding 4WD may not be a good choice if users must stretch to get in and out.
Tip: For most people the ideal seat height will be between mid-thigh and lower buttocks.
  • Consider cars that suit your individual usage requirements.
  • Make sure that you can get in and out of without excessive bending or stretching.
Tips:
  • Look at the range of small and mid-sized SUVs that are now very popular. Their more upright styling and higher seating position makes them easy to live with and they’ve proven to be firm favourites with buyers of all ages.
  • Don’t overlook the size of the door openings and how wide the doors open. Both can make a tremendous difference to how usable a car is.
  • If you’re considering a hatch or wagon check, there is enough room in your garage to allow the tailgate to open without contacting anything.
  • Consider models that have provision to limit the tailgate opening height in such situations.
  • Power operated tailgates can make life a lot easier, particularly if you have limited arm movement or struggle to pull down on a tailgate to close it.

Size matters

Think about how many passengers you’ll need to carry and what you will need to take with you. Tips:

  • A smaller car will generally be more economical to buy and run.
  • If you regularly do longer trips a larger car might be a more comfortable option.

Visibility

All cars have blind spots, but some are worse than others; it’s important you factor this into your purchase decision. Blind spots can be a very personal issue and are often dependent on the driver’s height and seating position.

Tips:
  • Choose a vehicle that provides all drivers with an adequate view to the front, sides, and back of the car.
  • Blind spots aren’t always to the rear. Some cars have very thick windscreen pillars or large rear-view mirrors that can produce their own blind spots.
  • Check rear view mirrors provide a good field of view.
  • Power mirrors are an easy way to ensure you always have optimum rear vision.
  • Consider too if the car has technology solutions such as reversing cameras, blind spot monitoring etc to alleviate such deficiencies.
  • Ultimately, you won’t find a car with no blind spots so you need to spend some time finding one you can live with.

Make sure the vehicle suits your particular needs

Do you need to take a walker or wheelchair with you?

If so:

  • Make sure there is enough space and boot openings etc are big enough to allow easy loading and unloading of the item.
  • Consider the height of the boot floor and any load lips that will have to be negotiated.

For those with physical limitations:

  • Consider spending some time prior to purchase sitting in the car and checking the adjustments for the seat, seatbelt and steering wheel etc will provide a comfortable driving position.
  • Don’t overlook your regular passengers, as the car needs to meet their needs as well.

Do you need to carry children on occasions?

If so:

  • Consider if the required number of child restraints will fit.
  • Is there enough room to carry other necessary items, such as prams?
  • Check the car has the required number of child restraint anchor points (many only have two) as well as their location and ease of use.
  • If in the floor or rear panel, they could interfere with any load you wish to carry.
  • If in the roof they can interfere with rear vision.

Do you need to tow a boat, caravan, or box trailer?

If so, consider if:

  • It has the necessary towing capacity for your needs.
  • It has features such as trailer sway control (if towing heavy trailers).
  • If the towbar tongue is easily removeable.

Technology

Many modern cars are packed with the latest technology – whether you want it or not.

Features such as Bluetooth to connect your phone to the car and the range of safety and convenience features already mentioned will be found in most new offerings.

Tips:
  • Even if you don’t want the technology, or won’t use it, the car you buy will probably have it. Make sure the car meets your needs even if you choose not to use the extra equipment provided.
  • Lower spec models tend to have less equipment than more upmarket models, but just about everything will have some level of technology these days.

Interior

Interior comfort is important to your safety and enjoyment of the car.

Look for:

  • Comfortable seats with plenty of adjustability, support and adequate leg room.
  • Lumber support (preferably adjustable)
  • Smooth ride
  • Easy to reach and use seatbelts
  • Good ergonomics (the design of features to ensure ease of use and reduce operator fatigue and discomfort)

Lights

Good headlights can make driving at night safer and easier. But not all modern headlight technologies suit all drivers so it’s important, where possible, you test drive the car you’re considering at night.

Tips:
  • Consider cars with headlights that move with the front wheels to help see around corners.
  • Headlights that stay on for a set period after switch-off (sometimes called Follow me home headlights) can be a real assistance in getting safely to your front door in the dark.
  • Consider “auto on” headlights.

Affordability and service costs

If you’re on a limited or fixed income, value for money and ongoing costs become even more important. When buying a car, you need to consider not only the purchase price, but also the ongoing costs of running and maintaining it.

Nice to have features

So far, we’ve talked about some essential attributes you should consider when buying a car. Now it’s time to talk about some of the little, often overlooked, things that can enhance the driving experience and make driving easier.

Tips:
  • Many drivers find steering wheel mounted controls to be convenient and easy to use.
  • Alternatively, consider models with voice activated controls. This completely removes the need to access some control switches.
  • Keyless entry and start allows you to enter and drive without having to take the key out of your pocket – great for those with arthritis or other limitations.
  • Remote boot releases offer a means of opening the boot or tailgate without having to put the key in the lock (this is particularly useful if combined with a power tailgate).
  • Reversing cameras make life easier for those who have difficulty twisting or turning their head.
  • Tilt/ reach adjustable steering wheels make finding a comfortable driving position easier. (just about everything has tilt adjustment but some still don’t have reach)
  • Look for models with plenty of seat and steering wheel adjustment, particularly if you have reduced limb movement or neck rotation.
  • Consider the size and location of control knobs and switches. If they’re not readily accessible, small and fiddly or not intuitive to use when sitting still, it’s likely they’ll be frustrating to use when driving, and a potential source of distraction.
  • Consider the size of dials and displays and how easy they are to read.
  • Look for cars with height adjustable front seat belts that will provide the most comfortable fit.