Newer car safety features can prolong driver independence

Dear Car Talk:

I own a 2013 Honda Civic EX with 16,000 miles, which I really like. But I'm wondering, since I turned 81 this year, if I should think about upgrading to the newer safety features, such as anti-collision, blind spot sensor, etc. Since I turned 81, I've been thinking that maybe I should have all the help I can get, but I know the Civic probably would be fine until I'm ready to hang up my keys (or the kids take them away). I have been studying a lot of different rating sources and like the features of the Subaru Impreza hatchback, which is in my price range and would hold my water skis and kayak. My two questions are: (1) Is it a good idea to make this change? and (2) Is there anything else I should consider? I really don't want an SUV. Thanks! – Shirley

RAY: Anything else you should consider? How about a chauffeur?

You absolutely should make this change, Shirley. Let’s face it: Our reflexes – along with our eyesight, our hearing and our tolerance for certain relatives at Thanksgiving – decline as we get older. What could be better than getting a car with some reflexes of its own to make up for our deficiencies?

That’s exactly what’s available to this current generation of senior drivers. We now have cars that notice if a pedestrian walks out in front of you and will hit the brakes for you if you don’t react in time. We have cars that will notice if traffic in front of you slows down, even if you haven’t noticed, and if you fail to react, they’ll slow or stop themselves for you. We have cars that will tell you that you shouldn’t change lanes right now because there’s a car (or worse, an 18-wheeler) in your blind spot that you didn’t notice.

Normally, what happens to older drivers is that they drive until there’s “an incident.” You don’t notice something, someone cuts you off and you don’t react quickly enough, you mistake a statue of the Hamburglar outside a McDonald’s for your late husband and drive into some shrubbery. These things happen. Then the kids conclude (probably correctly) that it’s time for you to give up the keys.

What these advanced safety features do is help you avoid those “incidents,” and delay the time when you have to give up driving and lose a big piece of your independence. Isn’t that fantastic?

At some point, if you can’t see or can’t operate the pedals, you’ll still have to give up the keys, Shirley. Although, within a decade or two, if you can hang on, technology may solve that, too, with totally self-driving cars. But for now, the crucial technology to have, in my opinion, is city- and highway-speed forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning and rear cross-traffic alert. And you can get all that stuff in a Subaru Impreza for less than $25 grand.

I recently drove the new Impreza, and it’s probably the most comfortable small car I’ve driven. It’s practical, affordable and, unlike a number of other affordable cars on the market, you can get it with all the good safety stuff.

I’d love to see a heads-up display in there, too (which projects key information, like your speed and navigation directions, out in front of the windshield, so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road), but good heads-up displays are still slowly trickling down from higher-end cars.

But this is an excellent idea, Shirley. Either trade in the Civic, or bestow it on a ne’er-do-well grandchild, and buy yourself some more safe years behind the wheel. And tell all of your 81-year-old waterskiing and kayaking friends to do the same.

Alloy wheels probably not worth the investment for this car

Dear Car Talk:

I have a 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, and I am considering getting lighter alloy wheels that are about 10 pounds lighter than the factory wheels. Would reducing 40 pounds of weight improve my mileage significantly, reduce my stopping distance and improve the handling enough to justify such an upgrade? – Jesada

RAY: I don't know how much these new wheels would cost you, Jesada, but unless you're stealing them, I don't see you making back your money in improved gas mileage during your natural lifetime.

You’d be reducing the weight of the car by about 1 percent. And while the relationship between weight and mileage isn’t direct, even if you got a 1 percent increase in mpg, you’re talking about half a mile per gallon. According to my math, if you drive 15,000 miles a year with these new wheels, you’d save $11.

In theory, the answer to all of your questions is “yes”: Reducing weight does improve fuel economy, reduce stopping distances and improve handling. But would it be enough for you to notice?

You might notice that the handling feels a little spryer. And if you really wanted to believe it, you probably could convince yourself that you were sensing the other benefits as well. But I think most people would not notice much, if any, difference off the racetrack.

If your primary interest is increasing your mileage – and boosting your bragging rights on the Jetta Hybrid blogs, which I bet you frequent – you’d be better off adding a few pounds of air to each of your tires. If, for instance, your tires call for 32 pounds of air per square inch (psi), fill them to 35 or 36.

In most cases, overfilling your tires by 10 percent over the car manufacturer’s recommended inflation pressure is safe (whereas underinflating them is not safe). And overinflating your tires will reduce rolling friction and improve your mileage a bit. It also can improve steering response and cornering.

The downside is that it will make your ride stiffer, degrading your ride quality and comfort a bit. But you can make up for that by taking all that money you saved on those alloy wheels and buying yourself a padded bicycle helmet. That’ll keep you from getting lumps on your head if you bounce up and hit the roof while driving around on your overinflated tires, Jesada. Good luck.

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